When it comes to saving the world, we hope that our leaders can steer us in the right direction. Many people were disappointed when US President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. No doubt, the implications to the planet are forbidding.

But here’s the thing. While we can’t control what leaders do, we still have the power to make a difference. With respect to climate change, there’s one single action we can easily take: eat less meat.

Sure, planting a tree, riding your bike, and driving less help too. But the impact of skipping meat once a week probably has far more impact and is vastly underestimated, especially if done en masse.

If every American skipped one meal of chicken a week and ate vegetarian food instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be equivalent to taking more than half a million cars off the roads, according to US Environmental Defense.

Meat is a major pollutant. It requires so much land, energy, and water to produce, in part because of feed crops, and also causes much pollution. The livestock industry accounts for 15% of all emissions of greenhouse gases – the gases that warm the planet and lead to climate change.

Many people do not realise that meat produces more greenhouse gases than all transport combined – yes, all cars, planes, trains and ships. And that was a conservative estimate from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Association (FAO) in 2006.

June 12 is World No Meat Day. People all over the world are cutting out meat for the day. Some are even going vegan (no meat nor dairy). If you’ve ever needed a reason to change your diet, here it is.

Saving the world starts with choosing what’s on your plate.

We, as Malaysians, particularly need to do this. We’re one of the highest meat consumers per capita. Depending on the year, data, and countries included, we are the 10th top meat-eating country (2013 World Economic Forum table) or the 13th (2015 table from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, or OECD).

In the region, we’re the second biggest meat eaters after Hong Kong (which is the No. 1 meat eater worldwide) per capita, according to research by business intelligence company Euromonitor. We eat more than twice as much meat as the Thais, and more than four times as much as Indonesians, according to 2015 OECD data .

It’s our chicken consumption that is huge. We’re the fourth biggest chicken consumers worldwide per capita, coming just after barbecue-loving Australia, Israel, and the United States, the 2015 OECD data shows.

It’s time for us to address our gluttonous love of chicken. For the future of this planet, we have to.

no meat day

With population growth and an ever-increasing appetite for meat, we’re getting to a point when we simply won’t have enough resources on this planet to meet the demand for meat.

As it is, the vast majority of the earth’s arable land is not used to raise grains, fruits, and vegetables that humans can eat, but for feed for animals – and this while almost a billion people do not have enough to eat. Consider: 1ha of land might only yield about 100kg of beef, but about 10,000kg of carrots or even more tomatoes. Meat production is highly inefficient.

Without a shift in diet, we won’t meet the global targets to contain global warming. Animal waste releases methane and nitrous oxide, greenhouse gases which are, respectively, 25 and 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Roughly 1.5 billion cows worldwide are passing out methane.

There are also 50 billion chickens, with a fair few of them here. But a visiting alien wouldn’t see them; they’re all shuttered up. The intensive farming in which animals are reared is incredibly cruel; often their lives are miserable from birth to death, unable to move freely or rear their young. As they’re prone to sickness, we pump them up with chemicals, including antibiotics.

Conditions are so bad that some American states have banned journalists (the “Ag-gag” laws) from writing about them. To me, how we treat our animals reflects our own (in)humanity.

no meat day

If going vegetarian is too big a step, consider flexitarianism – reducing but not eliminating meat content. Simply cutting down on meat and also not wasting food is a step forward.

Many countries now have a “Meatless Monday”, when for one day a week, people skip meat. Many restaurants and schools in Hong Kong, for example, now offer vegetarian options. So what about Malaysia, then? Who’s with me for a meat-free day on World No Meat Day?

Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health.