Your Burger or Your Car! (And More Fun with False Dichotomies)

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, whose blog is a must-read look at the political dynamics of congressional policy-making, makes an eyebrow-raising assertion in his food column today:

homecoming.jpegPhoto: CowCar

not simply that meat is a contributor to global warming; it’s that it
is a huge contributor. Larger, by a significant margin, than the global
transportation sector.

Really? Klein cites a 2006 report
by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which found
that the livestock industry — the process of bringing meat from farm
to table — generates 18 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions
"measured in CO2 equivalent."

Transportation, according to the UN report, generates 13.5 percent of global emissions measured by the same method.

that’s an important caveat. Two gases produced in large quantities by
livestock are methane and nitrous oxide, which have 23 times and 296
times the "global warming potential" of CO2. Measuring methane and
nitrous oxide in "CO2 equivalent," then, pads the climate impact of
livestock versus CO2 emitters such as cars and power plants.

2006 UN report’s comparison rings hollow in another way as well.
Measuring the movement of feed to factory farms, not to mention the
movement of packaged meat to supermarket shelves, means that livestock
is part of the world’s transportation sector, not a separate and
distinct source of emissions.

Later in his column, Klein also cites a University of Chicago study
that found adopting a vegan diet would be healthier for the environment
than driving a hybrid car. As Dan Lasher of the Natural Resources
Defense Council discovered,
however, the Chicago researchers drastically underestimated the amount
of CO2 released by one gallon of gas, among other "generic

So what’s the lesson? Cutting down on burger
consumption could be a positive choice that also helps the environment.
But setting up false dichotomies that suggest gas-guzzlers can be
mitigated by salads, that’s pretty unhealthy.

  • Brian

    “Two gases produced in large quantities by livestock are methane and nitrous oxide, which have 23 times and 296 times the “global warming potential” of CO2. Measuring methane and nitrous oxide in “CO2 equivalent,” then, pads the climate impact of livestock versus CO2 emitters such as cars and power plants.”

    Huh? Unless you’re challenging the merits of this conversion–which your article does not– then there’s no “padding.”

    While I have not seen anyone seriously suggest mitigating their hummer by going vegan, the image of a self proclaimed greenie driving their Prius through In-and-Out burger is quite funny.

    They’re not green, they’re a trendy poser.

    If this blog is ok with telling people how to travel is there a line before telling them how to eat?

  • DJB

    I think a reasonable take on the evidence is that greenhouse gas emissions from both transportation and meat consumption are significant contributors to climate change. We can debate which is a more significant contributor, if we want . . .

    I’m actually a half-assed vegetarian already (used to be a real vegetarian) partially because of the environmental impacts of meat consumption.

    So, next time I WALK or TAKE A BUS to a supermarket, I’ll remember to BUY LESS/NO MEAT.

  • Stats Dude

    Just putting it out there, hamburgers are the number one cause of bovine fatalities in the western hemisphere.

  • David Galvan

    . . . but . . . but bacon is delicious!!!

  • Mahatma

    Ha, is this a guilty conscience post or what?

    Suuuure…keep telling yourself this.

  • John Boucher

    I wouldn’t want to offend a certain State Senator from Sacramento, but is building high density housing in already built out urban neighborhoods really going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Particulalry when you consider the increased traffic, electricty generation, and transportation of needed supplies such large scale development would generate?

    I nearly hate to put it quite this way, but Sacramentnto brain farts could be the biggest threat to the environment of all.

  • DJB

    I don’t know how we got to talking about dense, mixed-use growth, but I’ll jump in.

    Dense mixed-use growth makes truly clean transportation possible. It reduces the average distance people have to travel, by any mode, including a car, to get to things. It may make private vehicle traffic slower in the short run, but in the long run the modes of transportation change and the traffic goes down. Also, look at the trend in cars: we’re moving towards hybrids. In the long run virtually all cars will be hybrids and stop-and-go driving won’t matter much for emissions. It will actually allow the cars to drive MORE efficiently by leaning more on their electric motors.

    We can keep building suburbs that force everybody to drive and eviscerate the viability of clean alternatives or we can give people a chance to CHOOSE between multiple VIABLE modes of transportation in dense, mixed-use, communities.

    In short, we can grow out, or we can grow up.



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