Reading Time: 4 minutes The UN poll on attitudes towards climate change is a 'huge win' for the plant-based movement Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The UN climate change poll is out. Here’s why it’s a ‘huge win’ for the plant-based movement.

Did you know fishes fall for optical illusions? It’s one of the many things we’ve learned about fishes that shows their sentience—and why we shouldn’t eat them.

Falling for illusions is a sign of intelligence. Both fishes and humans are easily tricked by how we look at things because our brains are smart. Our brains actively process information without us having to consciously stop and compute every bite of data—which takes forever.

So, what we see and understand is determined by our smart brains and the context of what we’re looking at. How big, small, important or irrelevant something looks often depends on what we see it next to. Take a look the famous Muller-Lyer illusion.

UN climate change poll

An illusion of this kind happened in this week’s UN poll on attitudes towards climate change. There is an incredible finding in their report. Getting close to half (43 percent) of the UK support the promotion of plant-based diets to combat the climate emergency. And this was a big survey—1.2 million people from 50 countries.

The reason this huge support for the plant-based movement maybe hasn’t gained the coverage it deserves is down to our brains computing ahead of our conscious attention. The report frames its results to show us that, globally, there were 17 other solutions to the climate emergency that people supported more. 

These levels of support are down to context—what people see around them. Where fossil fuels are a major source of emissions, more people supported renewable energy (76 percent in Australia, 65 percennt in the US). Where deforestation is a major visible distress, people supported the conservation of trees, with 60 percent support in Brazil and 57 percent in Indonesia.

‘Transformative shifts’

So let’s look properly at that figure. What does 43 percent of the UK population supporting plant-based diets tell us about the transformative shifts in our attitudes to food and the environment? Only Germany (44 percent) scored higher in the poll for support for vegan diets.

It tells us at least three things.

First, a massive number of people in the UK now see plant-based diets as quick, effective action that individuals can take to fight the climate emergency. That 43 percent of the adult population is nearly 24 million people. 

That number is even larger than the 37 percent of ‘flexitarians’ who said this time last year that they were looking to reduce their meat consumption. From 37-43 percent shows the trend continues towards less meat and plant-based diets. 

If you look at research from market analyst Mintel, the trend is even greater from 28% of meat-reducers in 2017 to 39% in 2020. That same data from Mintel shows 25% of people cited environmental benefits for eating less meat. The new UN poll puts the figure for supporting plant-based diets for environmental benefit at 43 percent. That’s a massive leap.

‘Advocating for systemic change’

So why has this come about? The second thing the data from the UN poll tells us is that it looks like advocating for systemic change on food for environmental reasons is working. This is having an impact on potential dietary choice. 

It was in 2019 that Animal Rebellion launched to join Extinction Rebellion in demanding urgent and proportionate action on climate change. Animal Rebellion argued: “We cannot fix the climate emergency without ending the animal emergency”. This shift made a difference.

We’ve been on that trend now for a while. Cowspiracy came out in 2014. (I wrote about the link between climate change and the animals we eat in 2016.) Nearly every major animal protection group now talks about climate. Look at The Vegan Society’s Plate up for the Planet campaign, Viva!’s focus on the climate crisis, or PETA’s environmental work.

From street activists to social influencers to plant-based platforms, we’ve done an incredible job changing people’s minds about the possibility and potential of a plant-based food system. 

In the UK we have placed animal agriculture’s links to climate catastrophe front and centre. People cannot avoid seeing the link. We have pushed the Overton Window for what’s possible to talk about. The focus on systemic transformation, leveraging people’s demand for action on climate change, is getting us closer to our goal of ending animal exploitation.

The plant-based movement

The third thing this data tells us is how vibrant and mainstream the plant-based movement has become in the UK. Brazil and Indonesia have the highest support for the conservation of trees, because deforestation is so visible. In the UK, we find the most visible vegan food options, culture, and activism. London is regularly HappyCow’s best vegan city in the world.

So let’s not be fooled by plant-based diets being less popular in the poll than conserving trees or tackling emissions when it comes to combating the climate emergency. 

Changing a global food system—the ‘Great Food Transformation’ called for by the world’s leading experts of the EAT-Lancet Commission—is unprecedented. We’ve not done it before. That 43 percent of people in the UK support this great food transformation, from an animal-based food system to a plant-based food system, is something to celebrate. We made that happen.

Vegan population

The official vegan population of the UK is 1.16 percent. In more recent surveys such as this one, it is at three percent. What’s brilliant to see are people’s intentions: in that survey, more than seven percent intend to follow a vegan diet by the end of 2021.

We know that not everyone manages to stick to their intentions. We’ve written about that before. But when people try it once, they’re more likely to try again. 

So let’s watch the future grow from that seven-43 percent—and then further.

What we can see from people’s urgent desire to tackle the climate emergency is that a plant-based future is visibly on the table. And that is no illusion.

Dr. Alex Lockwood

Alex Lockwood is a writer and senior lecturer at the University of Sunderland. He is the author of The Pig in Thin Air (Lantern Books), a vegan memoir about the relationship between climate change and the food we eat. His debut novel The Chernobyl Privileges (Roundfire) was shortlisted for the Rubery International Book Award 2019. He has written journalism, fiction and nonfiction for The Guardian, Earthlines, Zoomorphic, Like the Wind, SWAMP, The Dodo, The Millions and more. He is a regular speaker at events and various vegan festivals. Connect at http://www.twitter.com/alexlockwood.