Laura Wellesley
Research Associate, Energy, Environment and Resources
A global reduction in meat consumption could bring a quarter of the emissions reductions needed to meet the two-degree target at which dangerous climate change can be avoided.
Meat at a butcher shop. Photo by Getty Images.Meat at a butcher shop. Photo by Getty Images.

Next month, governments from around the world will come together to agree a deal on how they will bring global greenhouse gas emissions down and avert dangerous climate change.

By the time they meet, each country should have laid out its plans for reducing or slowing the growth in national emissions. Over 165 countries have put their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) on the table so far. Covering 93 per cent of global emissions, these INDCs paint a clear picture of where the two weeks of negotiations are likely to land.

The ambition of countries’ pledges is too low to keep global temperature rise below two degrees, instead setting the world on track for around 3 degrees of warming.

The Paris deal will therefore not be an endgame. Instead, it will mark the start of a process: governments will need to agree a mechanism that allows for the rapid scaling up of ambition.

An overlooked opportunity

Despite the scale of the challenge ahead, governments are planting their heads firmly in the sand with regard to a key piece of the climate action puzzle: the insatiable appetite for meat.

The production and consumption of meat is a major driver of climate change. Already, the livestock sector contributes 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions – equivalent to exhaust fumes from all the world’s vehicles. By 2050, global meat consumption is expected to rise by 75 per cent: even with ambitious mitigation to lower the emissions intensity of livestock production the world over, the increase in consumption will eat up a huge slice of the remaining carbon budget.

The upshot is that, without a significant reduction in global meat-eating, keeping global warming below two degrees will be nearly impossible. Tackling unsustainable meat consumption is therefore a necessity. It should also be seen as key opportunity for win-win policy-making.

A reduction in global meat consumption could close the emissions gap by a quarter. And by ‘freeing up’ a significant share of the remaining annual carbon budget by 2050, it could lower the costs of mitigation across the rest of the economy by 50 per cent. What’s more, reducing meat consumption would bring significant gains in terms of public health. Overconsumption of meat is contributing to a global obesity crisis and to the rise of non-communicable diseases in industrialized and emerging economies.

A global convergence around healthy levels of meat consumption – meaning a significant reduction for most – would mark an important step forwards in the fight against malnutrition, in all its forms.

Governments can – and should – lead

So why does meat remain off the policy agenda? Fear of backlash from the voting public and from a financially powerful industry has seen governments remain silent on the issue of unhealthy, unsustainable meat consumption. Unwilling to risk accusations of nanny state-ism, they find themselves trapped in a cycle of inertia. The assumption is that calling for dietary change is too politically sensitive, too practically difficult a policy avenue to pursue. But digging a little deeper into public opinion suggests that this assumption is unjustified.

Focus groups undertaken in Brazil, China, the UK and the US - four of the most important livestock-producing and meat-consuming countries in the world - point to a public that expects governments to intervene, that is unlikely to stage sustained resistance and that looks to governments to spearhead change where it is needed.

Of course, government policies to shift meat-eating habits will not be easy. Low public awareness of the climate impact of livestock production presents a significant obstacle in the near term: campaigns that throw light on the complex and unfamiliar notion of livestock emissions cannot hope to carry the impact needed to overcome the influence of individual preference and habit, cultural customs and industry ‘nudges’ telling us to eat more meat. But there exist other levers on which governments may pull to begin a shift in attitudes and behaviour, not least the health implications of excessive meat-eating.

Policies will need to span the whole range of intervention. Soft measures to raise awareness and encourage behaviour change – through adjustments to public procurement standards, for example, and vegetarian default options in school and hospital canteens – will need to be accompanied by more interventionist measures such as taxation and subsidy reform.

But the political space is there. Public disengagement with the diet-climate relationship is not the result of active resistance; rather, it is the product of a lack of awareness that has been sustained through government inaction. Were governments to signal the urgent need for change and to initiate a public debate around the need for dietary change, this disengagement would likely dissipate.

It’s time to take action

The enormity of the challenge that faces governments upon their return home from Paris means that no mitigation avenue can remain unexplored. And the gains to be reaped through dietary change – a quarter of the emissions reduction needed, considerable savings in mitigation costs and a big step forward in tackling diet-related diseases – are simply too significant to overlook any longer.

If governments divert from their path of inaction now, there is a real chance of bringing emissions back in line with the two-degree target. If not, even with ambitious mitigation in other sectors, the chances of avoiding dangerous climate change are slim.

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