Diet and Climate Change: Assessing Public Understanding and Behaviour

In partnership with the Glasgow University Media Group, researchers from Chatham House will review public understanding and behaviour in relation to meat and dairy consumption and its impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

The Impossible Burger 2.0, a plant-based vegan burger that tastes like real beef. Copyright © Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Through a globally implemented survey, focus groups in key countries, and research and analysis, the project seeks to enhance understanding of the motivations behind the consumption of meat and dairy in different cultural, socioeconomic and geographical contexts and to assess the level of awareness and public understanding of its impact on climate change.

Researchers will also seek to develop recommendations on how consumer attitudes and behaviour to food can be adapted in a way which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector.  


The global food system is a major source of greenhouse gases, contributing up to 29 per cent of global emissions. Mitigation initiatives have tended to focus on the supply side, through the development of ‘climate smart’ agricultural practices and attempts to develop frameworks and incentives to avoid deforestation.

However, a growing literature emphasizes the importance of consumption, pointing towards complementary demand-side interventions as an important part of the response.

A key demand-side driver of greenhouse gas emissions is the share of resource-intensive animal products in the overall diet, and in particular from ruminant cattle. The latest figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggest livestock emits 7.1 Gt CO2-eq yr-1, representing 14.5 per cent of all human-induced emissions. About two thirds of this is attributable to cattle.

The quantity of animal products in global food consumption is increasing, in particular, as a result of population growth and rising incomes in the developing world as consumers adopt more Western diets. Associated increases in greenhouse gas emissions as a result of this trend will have important consequences for the climate system.

For these reasons, understanding and potentially influencing public attitudes to meat consumption must be a fundamental component of future greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies.

There could also be important societal co-benefits from reducing meat consumption. Over-consumption of animal products is a risk factor for a number of diet related non-communicable diseases including diabetes, colorectal cancer and heart disease. 

Animal feed also constitutes a major and growing share of crop consumption, contributing to higher international food prices and effectively pitching rich meat consumers against poor cereal consumers.

Recent estimates indicate that a quarter of all crops grown are fed to animals, representing half of all protein and a third of calories produced. Shifting livestock production away from feed could increase available food calories by 70 per cent – enough to feed an extra four billion people. 

Project outline

Through a globally implemented survey, and focus groups in key countries, the research team at Chatham House, in partnership with the Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG) and in cooperation with Ipsos-MORI, will aim to:

  • Review public understanding and beliefs in relation to meat consumption, its impact on greenhouse gas emissions, global food security and societal health;
  • Increase the awareness of the relative importance of the various health, environmental, food security and economic benefits of dietary changes;
  • Examine the media sources that are typically used by audience members, and what is seen as trustworthy and credible;
  • Assess changes in beliefs resulting from new information from traditional and new media sources;
  • The project will further review the potential of different types of information to produce changes in behaviour and finally explore the opportunities for policy responses – ranging from communication campaigns to consumer labelling to choice editing and taxation – and how the public might respond to these. 

As part of the project researchers will also undertake structured interviews with policy formers, the science community and key industry stakeholders in order to:

  • Analyse the formation of public policy in the areas of climate change, agriculture and sustainability, and the range of factors that impact upon this, including public and media pressure;
  • Provide insight into the way in which policymakers and industry officials interact with traditional and new social media in the communication of policy and its implication for future policy.


The project is currently funded by the Avatar Alliance Foundation and the Craig and Susan McCaw Foundation.