A friend of mine who is passionately vegetarian pointed me to this report as a good economic reason to eschew meat:
…two World Bank environmental advisers claim that instead of 18 per cent of global emissions being caused by meat, the true figure is 51 per cent.
So am I thinking about becoming vegetarian since meat is known to be more costly than I previously thought? Of course not. As tempting as it is to see these things in black and white, it’s very unlikely that the cost of meat will ever get high enough that we cease to eat it. Rather people will substitute away from eating as much meat as the price rises.
At present we don’t have to pay the social cost of meat so we overconsume it. From a moral perspective I may then choose to eat less meat than I otherwise would. It’s even possible that, because I don’t know the true cost but presume it to be extremely high, that I’d employ the heuristic of becoming vegetarian. However, I wouldn’t feel bad about eating a steak at Christmas if I did turn (mostly) vegetarian.
Studies like this really reinforce what we talk about constantly on the blog here: it’s very difficult to accurately guess what the morally right thing to do is. Without price mechanisms to guide us we fall back on rules of thumb that probably do a pretty poor job in many situations.