New Chatham House report links increasing global meat consumption with climate change

June 8, 2016

A new report, ‘Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption’, was released this month by think tank Chatham House. The report argues that a global shift towards ‘healthier diets with lower meat content’ could play a significant role in tackling climate change, with some reports claiming it could help to close the gap between the projected temperature rise of 3°C by the end of the century and the goal maximum temperature rise of 2°C. The report also highlights that public understanding of livestock’s role in climate change is relatively low compared to understanding of other sources of emissions.

The crux of the matter is that demand for animal protein is increasing and this is not sustainable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have suggested that farming and associated changes in land use currently accountfor 20-25% of global warming, the largest contributor to this being the livestock sector, which accounts for 14.6% of greenhouse gas emissions. Although meat consumption in the developed world has plateaued, it has done so at excessive levels with the US consuming roughly 250g per person per day – nearly four times the amount considered healthy by experts. This combined with ever increasing demand for animal protein in the developing world means that meat consumption is forecast to rising by 76% by around 2050.

One of the key findings of the report is that Governments must lead the campaign to reduce meat consumption and that currently this is not happening; ‘without government intervention at national and international level, populations are unlikely to reduce their consumption of animal products and there is insufficient incentive for business to reduce supply’. Currently governments are doing very little to tackle this issue with only 21 of the 120 national planssubmitted in advance of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP 21) including commitments to reducing emissions from the livestock sector and none incorporating commitments to reduce meat consumption as of 21st October 2015.

This concern that the government are doing too little to intervene in matters concerning the livestock industry echoes those outlined earlier this month by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics in a letter coordinated to The Times. Chatham House suggests this is due to government overestimation of public backlash; ‘governments are trapped in a cycle of inertia. They fear the repercussions of intervention, while low public awareness means they feel no pressure to intervene’. However, it is thought that soft interventions to raise awareness of the issue – thought to be a key step in tackling the problem – would be well received. Additionally, focus group respondents thought although more interventionist measures, such as taxation, might meet public resistance, this would be short-lived – especially if there were greater understanding of policy rationale.

A key recommendation of the report is that the message relayed to the public needs to be kept simple. It is important to generate meaningful debate and public support will help bolster government action; however, at the same time it is crucial that efforts are made to develop ‘meaningful, accessible and impactful messaging around the need for dietary change’. Although it is made clear that ‘raising awareness is the first step, not the solution’ it is also important to note that ‘increased understanding of the link between livestock and climate change is associated with ‘greater willingness to reduce consumption’ and thus, seems to be a vital step on the road to reducing global meat consumption.

Read the full report here.