To Avert Climate Chaos, Meat Consumption Must Drop: Study

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To Avert Climate Chaos, Meat Consumption Must Drop: Study

Despite need to lower meat, dairy consumption, public awareness of livestock production's contribution to climate change low

Beef.  Maybe it's not what's for dinner anymore.  (Photo:  NDSU Ag Communication/flickr/cc)

There is an "awareness gap" amongst the global public of the link between eating meat and climate change, and that presents a real obstacle to keeping global warming under the 2-degree threshold, a new study finds.

From the London-based policy institute Chatham House, Livestock – Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector: Global Public Opinion on Meat and Dairy Consumption explores how the livestock sector's contribution to climate change—14.5 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions—is failing to get the attention it warrants.

To assess public attitudes on the issue, Chatham House commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct a multi-language, multi-country online survey. The results showed that 64 percent of respondents said exhaust emissions were a major contributor to climate change compared to just 29 percent who said livestock production was. Yet the two sectors' actual contribution to emissions is roughly the same.

From the paper: "Despite the scale and trajectory of emissions from the livestock sector, it attracts remarkably little policy attention at either the international or national level." It notes that few countries' mitigation plans submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reflect emissions reduction targets for livestock production.

By marginalizing livestock production's contribution to climate change, through, for example, lack of media attention, the lack of public awareness of the issue is not surprising, the authors write.

Though campaigns to reduce emissions from the energy sector, for example, have received notable attention, similar campaign to address livestock emissions have not. Contributing to this omission, the report states, are fear of interest group backlash, risks of accusations of being a 'nanny state,' and lack of evidence on the efficacy of such measures, which enables opponents' efforts to thwart or delay consumption reductions.

The good news, the researchers found, is that respondents who expressed a higher awareness of the livestock sector's contribution to climate change were those who also are already taking or are willing to take action on their dairy and meat-eating habits. That means that this awareness gap is key to effecting behavioral change, the study authors write.

They also found that respondents in Brazil, China and India—where demand in meat and dairy is expected to increase—expressed high awareness of anthropogenic climate change and a willingness to make food choices based on climate impacts.

Attempts to reduce livestock-related emissions through technical mitigation is good, but just doesn't go far enough, report states. "Estimates indicate that shifting all livestock farming to the least emissions-intensive production practices available within a particular region or agro-ecological zone could offer emissions reductions of 32 per cent at current output levels. This would be a remarkable achievement, but not enough to offset rising demand for meat and dairy products: livestock emissions would continue on an upward trajectory."

What needs to happen is on the demand side, the authors write. And reducing consumption levels of meat and dairy presents a win, win, win situation. Reducing meat consumption would not only help rein in emissions, it would offer social and environmental benefits as well, the paper notes. Diets high in animal products have been linked to health problems like heart disease, while the high use of antibiotics in livestock has contributed to the problem of antimicrobial resistance.

Reduction would also address livestock production's ineffeicient use of water and and its taking up of land that could be used to produce grains for human consumption rather than rather than for animal feed.

"Despite the necessity of addressing global meat and dairy demand if climate objectives are to be met, and the clear social, economic and environmental co-benefits, no government seems prepared to do so," the paper states.

Successful strategies to help people and societies effect these changes should focus on the multiple benefits that lowering meat and dairy consumption can offer, it states.

"Meat and dairy consumption is set to grow rapidly in the next 40 years and it is unlikely dangerous climate change can be avoided unless consumption falls. Addressing dietary trends has to be part of an international strategy to reduce emissions," Rob Bailey, lead author and Research Director, Energy, Environment and Resources, said in a media statement. "Ultimately, as with energy use, consumers need to change their behavior and this survey shows a substantial lack of awareness of this."

"If we are serious about avoiding dangerous climate change," Bailey writes in a separate article, "this is a problem we cannot afford to ignore any longer."

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