As negotiators gather in the Peruvian capital, Lima, this week for the start of the latest round of multinational talks aimed at finding ways of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, one issue will be conspicuous by its absence.
The rearing of livestock and meat consumption accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – even before considering its heavy and relatively inefficient use of water, land and crops – yet few governments are willing to discuss options for reducing its impact.
As well as carbon emissions from deforestation (for pasture or crops to feed animals), the livestock sector is also the largest source of methane (from cattle) and nitrous oxide emissions (from fertiliser and manure), two particularly potent greenhouse gases.
While governments around the world have initiated policies to reduce energy use in homes, industry and cars, they have been reluctant to legislate against meat. The only flicker of ambition, if you could call it that, has been in Europe where The Netherlands and Sweden included climate change considerations in their dietary recommendations to citizens.
This government indifference is matched by widespread public ignorance about the impact of meat-eating on climate change, according to a newly published survey of consumers in 12 countries (including Brazil, China, India, the UK and US), commissioned by the UK-based thinktank Chatham House.
Twice as many respondents identified direct transport emissions as a major contributor to climate change as identified meat and dairy production, despite them having almost equal contributions.
As many as one-quarter of respondents stated that meat and dairy production contributes little or nothing to climate change.
In addition, the Chatham House survey found only a small percentage (9%) of people across all of the 12 countries willing to reduce their own meat consumption to help tackle climate change. Although there was a greater willingness to change diets in China (19%), India (14%) and Brazil (12%) and much lower willingness from those respondents in Japan (2%), the UK (4%), US (4%) and Russia (5%).
The global meat footprint
With global consumption of meat expected to rise 76% by 2050, against a 2005-7 baseline, climate scientists are warning that dietary trends are incompatible with the objective of limiting global warming to 2C.
“Ultimately, as with energy use, consumers need to change their behaviour and this survey shows a substantial lack of awareness of this,” said Rob Bailey, lead author and research director at Chatham House.
While some experts have talked about so-called ‘sustainable intensification
’ and attempts to improve the efficiency of livestock production while maintaining production levels, climate scientists say focusing on supply-side emissions alone would be insufficient to meet the scale of emissions required to keep global warming to no more than 2C.
In a report on limiting the impact of livestock on climate change, published last year, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)
found the scale of growth in meat consumption was likely to outweigh any productivity gains that could be achieved. This was backed by the most recent scientific assessment on tackling climate change, produced by the IPCC, which said the greatest potential for reducing emissions in agriculture was through consumer demand.
The Chatham House report said most governments in high-meat eating countries were reluctant to try to reduce meat consumption because of fears about intervening in long-held cultural and religious traditions of meat eating, as well as the aspirational status of meat.
It said governments were also still uncertain about the efficacy of policy interventions on meat. “In reality there is minimal research on how dietary change might best be effected but this may well be symptomatic of the belief that the challenge is insurmountable, suggesting a cycle in which a lack of research allows this belief to remain uncontested, leading in turn to a lack of research and a policy vacuum.”
As a first step, it recommended that policy makers in government should attempt to tackle the lack of awareness about the impact of meat on climate change. “Closing the awareness gap on the relationship between meat/dairy and climate change is likely to increase willingness to act," said Antony Froggatt, senior research fellow at Chatham House, "And, in addition, policy or public information strategies that emphasise co-benefits such as health and cost and do not require consumers to compromise on enjoyment are likely to be more successful,” he said.