Meat: the big omission from the talks on emissions

Dr Jonathan Chenoweth reflects on a COP21 side-event that considered the impact of food production on climate change.

Here at COP21 in Paris I went this afternoon to a session on the impact of food production on climate change. In this session it was argued by some of the presenter that the global community cannot deal with climate change without drastically cutting meat consumption. As the speaker from the Chatham House institute in London outlined, approximately 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions are from the livestock sector. Essentially, it will probably be impossible to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees without a major shift in global meat and dairy consumption trends. If the developing world increasing adopts European levels of meat and dairy consumption, then keeping climate change below a 2 degrees increase becomes impossible no matter how far the energy sector decarbonises.
After the session I went away and had a play with The Global Calculator, a tool developed by an international team of researchers overseen by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change. This online tool allows the user to play around with different climate change mitigation options. For each of climate impacts, such as life style, fuel supply, food and land use, users can select levels of mitigation, from minimal abatement, ambitious abatement, very ambitious abatement, and extremely ambitious abatement. According to the explanation notes, the very ambitious abatement level is considered to be very challenging but probably achievable, but the extremely ambitious abatement level is well beyond what most experts think is possible. For the global community to achieve the “very ambitious” abatement in nearly all impact areas would require a level of effort and cooperation which would be unprecedented compared to anything seen in the past.
According to this tool, it is nearly impossible to avoid extremely dangerous climate change without a major shift in diet. If the global population reaches 10.9 billion by 2050 and the level of abatement effort is set for all categories as “very ambitious” with the exception of the diet options which are set to the minimal abatement level, then a global mean temperature rise of approximately 5 degrees can be expected by 2100. Even with a lower global population – 9.6 billion by 2050 – temperatures will still rise by approximately 4 degrees by the end of the century.
The tools suggests that it is only when there is a significant change in diets is effective mitigation possible. The minimal abatement level for diet assumes that the average person the planet eats a typical European diet – 2,520 Calories a day of which 281 Calories come from meat. The very ambitious abatement level for diet assumes that the average person consumes just 2,195 Calories a day (the global average in 2011) and get 152 Calories a day from meat, the target suggested by the WHO for a healthy diet. The extremely ambitious abatement level assumes 2,100 Calories a day and just 14 Calories from meat, the level of meat consumption in India in 2011. With a global population of 10.9 billion by 2050 and very ambitious mitigation efforts across all categories, including diet, a temperature rise of just under 2 degrees by 2100 can be expected. With a population of 9.6 billion and extremely ambitious dietary change, a temperature rise of just under 1 degree by 2100 can be expected. Basically, without a change in diets, particularly in wealthy countries, catastrophic climate change becomes nearly inevitable.
So how easy will it be to change diets? A typical consumer may not really care too much whether their electricity is generated by a solar panel or a coal fired power station. So long as the lights, washing machine and internet all work, it ultimately doesn’t make any direct difference to daily life where the power came from. However, food goes to the heart of human cultures.
Here in France, meat and dairy are absolutely central to French society. Almost everything you can order in a restaurant is rich in both meat and dairy products. Most famous French dishes are based upon meat or diary. France prides itself on its huge diversity of cheeses. Even here at COP21, it is very difficult to find vegetarian food. Do people care enough about climate change to only eat meat on the rarest of occasions, and cheese only occasionally? Can national cuisines be radically transformed, as is so urgently needed? Maybe a Sunday roast in the UK needs to become a thing of the past, unless of course it is a nut roast.

Further information and some excellent reports on this issue can be found on the Chatham House website at: