THE BLOG
12/21/2015 02:17 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2016

The Paris Climate Agreement: What Does it Mean for Animals - And How We Eat?

Not long after governments at the United Nations climate summit in Paris finally reached an agreement, friends and colleagues concerned about the rights and welfare of animals began to bombard me with messages. As I tried to review the final agreed text in the Frankfurt airport (on a layover on my way back from Paris to New York), I got more queries and then updates: what words were in and what, unaccountably, weren't there, including two: "other species."

It seemed baffling. How could a 31-page document on the fate of the planet and agreed to by 195 countries not acknowledge that more than one species; or that that species is responsible for thousands of species dying out or being decimated as a result of our outsized and destructive ecological footprint; or that human-induced climate change is making whole habitats inhospitable to the flora and fauna living in them?

It wasn't only the absence of "other species" that my interlocutors noted; a search for "animal/s" in the agreement also came up empty. Didn't animals, too, have a stake in climate change, and a right to livable habitats, breathable air, healthy soils, stable oceans, and intact ecosystems? And it didn't stop there. Many activists, researchers, and policy experts asked me, astonished, how it was that industrial animal agriculture's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions isn't mentioned once: nor were "meat," "cattle," "fish," or "livestock." Even "agriculture" isn't there and "biodiversity" only occurs once.

It may seem strange, but such absences are a fact of the unwieldy process that leads to international agreements like the one hashed out in Paris last Saturday. I've been attending UN climate summits since 2009 (held in Copenhagen) when a comprehensive deal spectacularly fell apart. The realities of the negotiating text and its distance from lived realities no longer surprise me.

It's worth noting some of the other words that aren't included in the Paris agreement. "Something everyone should know about the COP21 climate deal: the words 'fossil fuels' do not appear. Neither do the words 'oil' or 'coal,'" writer and activist Naomi Klein observed in a much-retweeted Tweet. This is the case despite the focus of the Paris conference being, like the global climate change discourse, the reduction and rapid elimination of fossil fuels in favor of low- or zero-emission sources of renewable energy.

Partly, these absences reflect the nature of these agreements and how they're generated. They're aspirational as much as proscriptive in order to allow countries to feel they have options in how they implement them - and frankly to get governments to buy in and not be dissuaded from doing so by national interests and lobbies (i.e., in the U.S., the fossil fuel industry and agribusiness).

So, given what's left out and how voluntary many of the commitments that are included are, how might one proactively "read" the Paris agreement if you're concerned about the welfare and rights of "other species" of animal than our own, whether domesticated or wild.

One challenge will be how to make use of those commitments going forward to create new norms and, in time, new, more inclusive language. For example, the agreement "welcomes the efforts of all non-Party stakeholders to address and respond to climate change, including those of civil society, the private sector, financial institutions, cities and other subnational authorities."

This suggests that organizations involved in animal protection (wild and domestic), private companies developing plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products (and investors helping them grow), and others are being invited to put forward proposals for addressing climate change. Is it a strong invitation? Well, it's probably stronger for businesses than for civil society writ large. But it's still a way in to the discourse. We shouldn't forget that.

The agreement also recognizes the importance of "sustainable lifestyles and sustainable patterns of consumption and production." This is boilerplate language that's increasingly common in international environmental agreements and analysis. Nonetheless, it offers an opportunity to argue for the many practical and achievable ways that diets low in or free from animal products reduce or eliminate GHGs at the point of consumption and production--including the fossil fuels and resulting carbon dioxide emissions that most of the delegates in Paris were focused on.

"Food" appears three times. Article 2 contains a call to safeguard "food security" and end hunger (both essential, of course, for the human species) and to recognize the "particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change." This framing alludes to, but doesn't really capture, the drama, urgency, or hugely destabilizing effects global warming is already having on agriculture in the shape of water shortages, erratic rainfall, higher temperatures, and desertification.

It's the third food reference that may be most problematic . . . or the opposite. Article 2 also commits governments to "strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change" by, among other measures, "Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production" (italics mine).

This phrase could be interpreted to mean that the "production" aspects of agriculture, i.e., increased yields and volume, should be protected from climate actions that could change the status quo. I was told this phrase was inserted into the text by Argentina, one of the world's top producers and exporters of soy for livestock feed, as well as a significant meat producer. Other leading meat and feed "powers" and big GHG emitters like the U.S., E.U., Canada, Brazil, and China didn't object.

There's a flipside, however. It can be argued, with solid data, that intensive animal agriculture itself threatens food production, as well as the possibility of more ensuring sustainable, equitable, and climate-resilient food systems given its enormous water, land, and chemical fertilizer requirements; the monocultures it creates, of both non-human animals and feed crops; and the massive water pollution, deforestation, and biodiversity losses it requires.

And animal agriculture can't seriously be described as offering a "low GHG" pathway: the global livestock sector is responsible for at least 14.5% of anthropogenic GHGs. Some said as much in Paris, at least outside the formal negotiating rooms.

"It's completely unacceptable that diet and especially the meat question is not figuring prominently on the agenda of the COP," according to Jo Leinen, a German member of the European Parliament, speaking at an official side event Brighter Green co-sponsored on meat and greenhouse gas emissions at the climate summit with Chatham House, Humane Society International, and the EAT Initiative. Most who attended agreed: this should be a matter for public policy, not a fringe concern of the small, but growing, number of the world's "climate vegans."

In effect, the Paris agreement can be seen as challenging animal advocates to offer better, faster, and more complete solutions to climate change, and an opening for those of us who care about non-human animals to make sure that going forward, our common language in and outside the text will be better for the millions of "other species" who also call this planet home.

Mia MacDonald and Brighter Green associate Wanqing Zhou participated in the COP21 climate summit that concluded on December 12. More information about their work there and photos are here.