Co-authored by Antony Froggatt, Senior Research Fellow in the Energy, Environment and Resources Department at the U.K.-based international affairs think tank Chatham House. A version of this post was published in Chinese by Caixin, the Beijing-based financial and business news media group.
With the strange and tumultuous weather in the U.S. continuing into the New Year, climate change and what may be in store next is more and more a topic of daily discussions. The recently concluded United Nations climate summit in Paris also increased awareness of the "new normal" of a warming world and its consequences, not only in a far off future but right now.
The Paris Agreement, reached by nearly 200 countries at the COP21 summit, is a milestone on the road to a stable climate. Governments pledged to keep global temperature increases to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to work toward a more ambitious target, of limiting the overall temperature rise to 1.5°C.
But the Paris summit largely ignored a crucial fact: what the world eats and how it produces its food are extremely important factors in addressing climate change, more than most governments and their citizens generally recognize. The global livestock sector accounts for a significant share of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, 14.5 percent, as much as tailpipe emissions from the world's transportation sector.
Simply to hold temperatures below 2°C will require not only the rapid reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but also those of other GHGs, including methane, which is twenty-five times more potent a GHG than CO2. Nearly half of the world's methane emissions come from the livestock sector.
Government parties to the Paris Agreement acknowledged that the pledges they made for reducing GHGs prior to COP21 were inadequate (as contained in Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs). It's clear that future plans will have to be more ambitious, and encompass developed and fast-growing emerging nations reducing emissions throughout their economies--not just in the energy sector. Agriculture must be included.
If current trends continue, global meat consumption will rise by 76 percent by 2050. It will be almost impossible to achieve the targets agreed in Paris without a shift to eating, and producing, less meat.
Researchers from Cambridge University found that a global transition to healthier diets could cut CO2 equivalent emissions by an extra 6 billion tonnes by 2050, nearly all from reduced meat consumption. A focus on dietary change could also lower the costs of climate mitigation by up to 50 percent by 2050.
Many people, including those in government or the private sector, aren't aware of livestock's role in climate change, or their own health. Yet the environmental and social costs of overconsumption of meat (and production of feedcrops like soybeans and corn) are considerable. They include rising rates of obesity and non-communicable diseases like diabetes, plus depletion of soil, water, forests, and biodiversity.
These impacts are acknowledged increasingly in industrialized countries, and Brighter Green research finds they are being felt in countries like China and India, too. More than 70 billion animals are used in food production each year; this number could reach 120 billion by 2050 if nothing changes.
Without government intervention, consumers are unlikely to eat less meat, and businesses have little incentive to reduce supply. This leaves governments trapped in a cycle of inertia: they fear the consequences of taking action, while low public awareness means they don't feel pressure to do so.
But there's reason to believe that governments don't have to be so cautious. Focus group research by the University of Glasgow in Brazil, China, the U.S., and U.K suggests that the public expects governments to lead in this area and the risks of a backlash are overestimated. A multi-pronged approach (led by governments and involving celebrities, the media, scientists, environmental organizations, and the private sector) is most likely to succeed.
Public education campaigns to raise awareness of the climate consequences of eating too much meat could be folded into efforts to alert people to the health effects--learning from ongoing efforts to educate the public about the risks of abusing tobacco and alcohol, or eating trans fats and drinking sugar-laden sodas.
While essential, raising public awareness is not sufficient. Governments can and should also work with industry to put clear labels on low-GHG, healthier, more sustainable food products; and encourage investment in the research and development of alternatives to animal-based protein. Entrepreneurs Vinod Khosla, Bill Gates, and Li Ka-shing have all funded companies working on meat and dairy analogues.
National guidelines for sustainable and healthful diets are also important. In China, nutrition guidelines issued by the State Council in 2014 call for average annual per capita meat consumption to be 29 kilograms by 2020, which is nearly 50 percent lower than current levels. These guidelines are drawing interest from policy-makers, researchers, and organizations in the U.S., the E.U., and elsewhere.
It's a shame, but the new U.S. dietary guidelines, currently being finalized, will not include any discussion of how American diets could be more sustainable or the links between what we eat, natural resources like water and energy, and long-term food security. Boldness deserted government policy-makers as they bowed to industry pressure and torpedoed another recommendation by the guidelines' advisory committee: letting Americans know that consuming more plant-based foods and less meat reduces environmental impacts, including GHGs.
Such national directives are now recognized as a central element in a comprehensive approach to ensuring healthier diets and addressing climate change. Procurement is another key area. Governments are often the largest buyers of food products, for example for schools, state institutions like hospitals and ministries, and the military. China's INDC called for limits to large-scale agricultural industrialization and promotion of "low-carbon" food service--the only INDC to include demand-side action on food.
Encouraging sustainable diets, and providing incentives for food systems that reduce GHGs and prioritize sustainability, offer governments opportunities to act without reforming industry subsidies or initiating carbon taxes. These measures, and more, may ultimately be necessary, although they're also more politically sensitive (and likely to encounter more resistance).
Given the potential, and the benefits, why wouldn't reducing GHGs from meat consumption and production become a priority for governments, as well as the private sector and health and environmental researchers and advocates? Our judgment is: it will. Stabilizing the global climate requires no less.