Research Associate, Energy, Environment and Resources
Senior Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources

Catherine Happer, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Glasgow

Reducing global meat consumption will be critical to keeping global warming below the ‘danger level’ of two degrees Celsius, the main goal of the climate negotiations in Paris.

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.

Key findings

  • Our appetite for meat is a major driver of climate change.
  • Reducing global meat consumption will be critical to keeping global warming below the ‘danger level’ of two degrees Celsius.
  • Public awareness of the issue is low, and meat remains off the policy agenda.
  • Governments must lead in shifting attitudes and behaviours.

The problem

  • Our appetite for meat is a major driver of climate change. Reducing global meat consumption will be critical to keeping global warming below the ‘danger level’ of two degrees Celsius. The livestock sector accounts for 15 per cent of global emissions, equivalent to exhaust emissions from all the vehicles in the world. A shift to healthier patterns of meat-eating could bring a quarter of the emissions reductions we need to keep on track for a two-degree world.
  • Global meat consumption has already reached unhealthy levels, and is on the rise. In industrialized countries, the average person is already eating twice as much meat as is deemed healthy by experts. Overconsumption is already contributing to the rise of obesity and non-communicable diseases like cancer and type-2 diabetes, and it is a growing problem: global meat consumption is set to rise by over 75 per cent by 2050.
  • Governments are missing a key opportunity for climate mitigation, trapped in a cycle of inertia. In spite of a compelling case for addressing meat consumption and shifting diets, governments fear the repercussions of intervention, while low public awareness means they feel little pressure to intervene.

Key findings

  • Public awareness of the link between diet and climate change is very low. There is a considerable awareness gap around the links between livestock, diet and climate change. While awareness-raising alone will not be sufficient to effect dietary change, it will be crucial to ensuring the efficacy of the range of government policy interventions required.
  • Governments must lead. Our research found a general belief across cultures and continents that it is the role of government to spearhead efforts to address unsustainable consumption of meat. Governments overestimate the risk of public backlash and their inaction signals to publics that the issue is unimportant or undeserving of concern.
  • The issue is complex but the message must be simple. Publics respond best to simple messages. Efforts must be made to develop meaningful, accessible and impactful messaging around the need for dietary change. The overall message remains clear: globally we should eat less meat.
  • Trusted sources are key to raising awareness. Unless disseminated and supported by trusted sources, new information that encourages shifts in meat-eating habits is likely to be met with resistance. Trust in governments varies considerably between countries, but experts are consistently seen as the most reliable source of information within a country.

Recommendations

  • Build the case for government intervention. A compelling evidence base which resonates with existing policy objectives such as managing healthcare costs, reducing emissions and implementing international frameworks will help mobilize policy-makers.
  • Initiate national debates about meat consumption. Increasing public awareness about the problems of overconsumption of animal products can help disrupt the cycle of inertia, thereby creating more enabling domestic circumstances and the political space for policy intervention. This is a role for governments, the media, the scientific community, civil society and responsible business.
  • Pursue comprehensive approaches. Shifting diets will require comprehensive strategies, which together will amount to more than the sum of their parts by sending a powerful signal to consumers that reducing meat consumption is beneficial and that government takes the issue seriously.