Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, California, October 2015. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images.Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, California, October 2015. Photo: Getty Images.

In the week before governments assemble in Paris to agree a global climate deal, a new report from Chatham House shows that a worldwide shift to healthier diets could help close the gap between current emissions reduction plans and what is needed to prevent dangerous climate change.

Pledges from countries attending the 21st UNFCCC Conference of the Parties put the world on track for around 3 degrees of warming by 2100, leaving governments with much more still to do. Changing diets to healthy levels of meat consumption could generate a quarter of the remaining emission reductions needed to keep warming below the ‘danger level’ of 2 degrees Celsius – the main goal of the climate negotiations.

Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption by Laura Wellesley, Catherine Happer and Antony Froggatt argues that, ultimately, dietary change is fundamental to achieving the 2 degrees goal. The livestock sector is already responsible for 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Unless strong demand growth for meat is curtailed, livestock sector emissions will increase to the point where dangerous climate change is unavoidable.

Dietary change would also have major health benefits. Global per capita meat consumption is already above healthy levels, and double the recommended amount in industrialized countries. Too much red and processed meat is associated with an increased risk of non-communicable diseases, in particular cancer, as found most recently by the World Health Organization.

'Reducing meat consumption is a real win-win for health and for the climate,' says report author Laura Wellesley. 'As governments look for strategies to close the Paris emissions gap quickly and cheaply, dietary change should be high on the list.'

However, the report finds that governments are ignoring the opportunity. Reducing meat consumption does not feature in a single national emissions reduction plan submitted in advance of the Paris meeting. Governments are afraid to interfere in lifestyle choices for fear of public backlash.

But new research undertaken for the report, including an innovative public survey in 12 countries and focus groups in Brazil, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States shows that government fears are exaggerated. Once aware of the link between meat and climate change, consumers accept the need for government action. Even unpopular interventions to make meat more expensive, for example through a carbon tax, would face diminishing resistance as publics come to understand the rationale behind intervention.

To build support for government action, the report recommends initiatives to raise public awareness of the climate and health impacts of excessive meat consumption. Governments should pursue comprehensive strategies to shift diets, including policies on labelling, public procurement, regulation and pricing.

'Raising awareness about the health and environmental impacts of meat is an important first step, but on its own it will not lead to significant behaviour change. Governments must do more to influence diets,' added Wellesley.

Editor's notes: 

Read Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption by Laura Wellesley, Catherine Happer and Antony Froggatt.

This report is embargoed until 00:01 GMT on Tuesday 24 November.         

To arrange an interview with the authors please contact the press office.

This research project was carried out in conjunction with Glasgow University Media Group.  

Further research findings:

  • Meat consumption has already reached excessive levels in many Western countries: in industrialized countries, it is around twice the amount deemed healthy by experts. And with the rise of new meat-eating middle classes in developing countries, global meat consumption is set to increase by 76 per cent by 2050.
  • Action on diets could also lower the costs of climate action across the rest of the economy by 50 per cent, while presenting a win-win strategy for policy-makers in terms of public health benefits.
  • In the UK and US, men are more likely to want to eat more meat than women.
  • In China, the desire to eat meat increases in line with income, while in the US and UK, wealthier people are less likely to say they want to eat more meat.
  • In the UK and US, climate change is a more politicized and divisive issue, and people are more sceptical about the science.
  • The US respondents remained most sceptical about the data presented to them.
  • In the UK and US, people were reluctant to take personal responsibility for climate change, seeing it as something those in public roles were responsible for.
  • The highest levels of concern around food safety and animal welfare associated with meat production were found among US respondents. 
  • People in the UK were most likely to eat less meat for health reasons.
  • In the UK and US, meat was associated positively with nutrition and fulfilment, but negatively with health and food safety.

The executive summary of the report is available in Mandarin and Portuguese.       

Read the International Agency for Research on Cancer/World Health Organization monographs evaluation on consumption of red meat and processed meat, 26 October 2015.