Rob Bailey
Research Director, Energy, Environment and Resources
The global public and the international community need a greater awareness of how much meat and dairy consumption can affect climate goals.
Photo: iStockphotoPhoto: iStockphoto

The next 12 months are likely to be decisive for the global effort to contain climate change. This time next year, governments will meet in Paris to agree a new deal with the objective of limiting warming to no more than two degrees Celsius. In the remaining time, governments must resolve their differences on a range of technical and legal issues and come forward with commitments setting out the extent of emissions cuts they are willing to make beyond 2020. This process has already begun. In October, the European Union announced its target to cut emissions to at least 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030. A few weeks later, the US and China together announced pledges to reduce emissions to 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025 in the case of the former, and reach peak carbon dioxide emissions by around 2030 in the case of the latter.

However as the international community’s plans to tackle climate change take shape, a gap is emerging. And unfortunately it’s a big one. The livestock sector is responsible for nearly 15 per cent of global emissions – similar to that produced by powering all the cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships in the world – yet it is conspicuous by its absence from international or national strategies to reduce emissions.

Livestock production is the largest source of two of the most potent greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide. Methane results from digestion in ruminant animals such as cows, sheep and goats. Nitrous oxide is produced from manure and from fertilizers used to grow feed crops. Large amounts of carbon dioxide are also produced as forests are converted for pasture or to grow feed crops.

Human demand for meat and dairy means that there are now 22 billion chickens in the world – more than three per person; by weight, the humble cow is probably the most preponderant species walking the Earth. By 2050, global consumption of meat and dairy is expected to have risen by 76 per cent and 65 per cent respectively against a 2005-07 baseline. Recent modelling has shown that dietary trends are simply incompatible with the objective of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius.  

So why is nothing being done to tackle demand? The received wisdom among governments and policy makers appears to be that trying to change diets is at best too complex a challenge, and at worst risks backlash for intruding on people’s lifestyle choices. This results in a lack of awareness about the issue among publics, and probably contributes to a degree of complacency: people might reasonably assume that if meat and dairy consumption really was a problem for the climate, governments and environmental groups would be doing more about it. There is no shortage of policymaking and campaigning on transport or household energy efficiency.

To examine this question in more detail, Chatham House commissioned Ipsos MORI to undertake the first multi-country survey specifically soliciting opinions on the links between meat/dairy and climate change. As expected, the results demonstrated a clear awareness gap: recognition of the livestock sector’s role in contributing to climate change was markedly lower than for all other sectors surveyed. Globally, people were more than twice as likely to identify transport as a major contributor to climate change.

On the positive side, the survey also revealed that consumers with higher awareness may be more likely to reduce their meat and dairy consumption in order to tackle climate change. Closing the awareness gap is probably therefore a precondition for behaviour change. None of this is to say that shifting diets away from meat and dairy will be easy. Doing so will require different approaches in different contexts, but successful strategies are likely to involve government, business and civil society and go far beyond awareness raising to incorporate marketing strategies, campaigns and public policies. However if we are serious about avoiding dangerous climate change, this is a problem we cannot afford to ignore any longer.

A version of this article has been published in Mandarin by FT Chinese.

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