Livestock – Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector: Global Public Opinion on Meat and Dairy Consumption

Human consumption of meat and dairy products is a major driver of climate change, but this new paper finds that there is a major lack of public awareness and understanding of the link between eating meat and dairy and climate change.

Research paper Published 3 December 2014 Updated 18 May 2023

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Consumption of meat and dairy produce is a major driver of climate change.

  • Greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector are estimated to account for 14.5 per cent of the global total, more than direct emissions from the transport sector.
  • Even with ambitious supply-side action to reduce the emissions intensity of livestock production, rising global demand for meat and dairy produce means emissions will continue to rise.

Shifting global demand for meat and dairy produce is central to achieving climate goals.

  • Recent analyses have shown that it is unlikely global temperature rises can be kept below two degrees Celsius without a shift in global meat and dairy consumption.
  • Reducing demand for animal products could also significantly reduce mitigation costs in non-agricultural sectors by increasing their available carbon budget.

However, there is a striking paucity of efforts to reduce consumption of meat and dairy products.

  • A number of factors, not least fear of backlash, have made governments and environmental groups reluctant to pursue policies or campaigns to shift consumer behaviour.
  • The lack of attention afforded to the issue among policy-makers and opinion-formers contributes to a lack of research on how best to reduce meat and dairy consumption.
  • As a first step in addressing this lack of research, Ipsos MORI was commissioned by Chatham House to undertake the first multi-country, multilingual online survey specifically to explore public attitudes on the relationship between meat/dairy consumption and climate change.

The data presented in this paper reveal a major awareness gap about livestock’s contribution to climate change.

  • Compared with other sectors, recognition of the livestock sector as a significant contributor to climate change is markedly low.
  • Consumers with a higher level of awareness were more likely to indicate willingness to reduce their meat and dairy consumption for climate objectives. Closing the awareness gap is therefore likely to be an important precondition for behaviour change.
  • Those actors most trusted to inform consumers on the links between livestock and climate change are generally ‘experts’ and environmental groups, though important differences exist between countries.

Climate change is not currently a primary consideration in food choices.

  • Climate change is generally secondary to immediate considerations of taste, price, health and food safety in shaping food choices.
  • This has important implications for the design of strategies to moderate meat and dairy consumption: those that emphasize co-benefits (e.g. for health and expenditure) and do not require consumers to compromise on enjoyment are likely to be more successful.

Some of the greatest potential for behaviour change appears to lie in emerging economies.

  • Respondents to the online survey in Brazil, China and India demonstrated high levels of acceptance of anthropogenic climate change, greater consideration of climate change when choosing meat and dairy, and a greater willingness to modify their consumption behaviour than the average of the countries assessed.
  • This is encouraging as these countries are among the most important for future demand for meat and dairy products.