Antony Froggatt
Senior Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources
Laura Wellesley
Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources
China is waking up to the climate costs of excessive meat consumption – others must do the same before it’s too late.
Customers select pork at a supermarket in Fuyang. Photo by Getty Images.Customers select pork at a supermarket in Fuyang. Photo by Getty Images.

This week, state officials in China came together with celebrities and campaign groups to trumpet the launch by the Chinese Nutrition Society, the official source of dietary advice in China, of its latest guidelines. The revised guidelines, published last month, advise that individuals limit their meat consumption to between 40g and 75g a day, half of current consumption levels, and reflect the government’s desire to avert a looming public health crisis driven in part by rapidly shifting diets. Rising per capita meat consumption in China – coupled with falling levels of physical activity, a growing appetite for high-protein, high-calorie and high-fat foods – is contributing to rising incidence of overweight, obesity and non-communicable diseases.

A new trend

The new Chinese guidance is the latest in a wave of national-level activity to tackle excessive meat-eating habits in industrialised and emerging economies. The past two years have seen revised dietary guidelines in the United States, Sweden, the UK and the Netherlands, each of which recommended a reduction in meat consumption from current levels.

Each of the national guidelines is underpinned by a drive for improved public health and containing the rapidly rising healthcare and social costs associated with diet-related disease and obesity. But there are also indications of a new shift towards principles that promote both healthier and more environmentally sustainable eating patterns.

Widespread calls for the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in the United States to mainstream environmental criteria into the revised dietary guidelines, while ultimately unsuccessful, generated a media storm when the proposed amendments received a record number of comments – nearly 30,000 in total – during the public consultation process.

Advice issued by the Netherlands Nutrition Centre in April 2016 addresses directly the imperative of lessening the environmental impact of our diets. So-called ‘high-carbon’ meats – namely, meat from ruminant animals such as cows, sheep and goats – should feature only minimally in a healthy, balanced and sustainable diet, the guidelines say, and should make up no more than 300g of the 500g weekly recommended total of meat.

And in April this year, the Danish government debated the imposition of a carbon tax on meat after the Danish Council of Ethics, a government think tank, passed a motion for the consideration of higher taxes on red meat as a means to foster more environmentally sustainable eating habits.

Beefing up climate action

In December 2015, the international community agreed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to ‘well below’ 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees. The national pledges put forward ahead of the Paris conference fall short of this target, paving the way for at least 2.7 degrees of global warming.

To realize an emissions reduction pathway consistent with the 2-degree goal, national governments will need to ramp up ambition, as per the ratchet mechanism laid out in the Paris Agreement, ahead of the next round of pledge-making in 2020. In this context, global meat consumption patterns present both a challenge and an opportunity.

On the one hand, business-as-usual trends in meat consumption have the potential to nullify climate efforts in other sectors of the economy. If the future trajectory of global meat consumption unfolds as expected, greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector are likely to reach an annual total of 12 GtCO2e (billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions) by 2050, up from 7 GtCO2e today. That’s half of the 24 GtCO2e annual limit at which emissions need to level by 2050 if the 2-degree target is to be met, and virtually the entire 13 GtCO2e annual emissions limit by 2050 that will keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

On the other hand, unsustainable diets represent a significant, untapped area for climate mitigation, and one in which considerable emissions reductions could be made at relatively little cost. 

A window of opportunity

Win-win policies that address unhealthy and unsustainable eating patterns should be mainstreamed into climate talks and incorporated into the next round of national pledges. As big players on the regional and global stages, China, the US and Europe have a central role to play in throwing light on an as yet overlooked area of climate policy, and in exporting lessons learned and policies tested to their regional, cultural and political alliances.

Ahead of the next round of UNFCCC negotiations in 2020, and the submission of national pledges in 2018, the next few years present a critical window of opportunity for entrenching ambitious, innovative and effective climate action. A concerted effort now by the international community to follow the Chinese and Dutch examples and to divert over-consuming populations towards healthier, more sustainable patterns of meat-eating would be a crucial step in the global fight against climate change.

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