Science & Environment

Growing appetite for meat 'risks climate targets'

A cow (Image: BBC)
Image caption Policies to address emissions from the livestock sector is "largely absent" from climate negotiations

An "awareness gap" about emissions from livestock could hamper efforts to curb climate change, a report warns.

A survey showed that twice as many respondents thought emissions from transport were greater than from the global livestock sector.

Yet emissions from the two sectors are almost equal, the study explained.

It added that the goal of keeping the global temperature rise below 2C (3.6F) would be "off the table" unless there was a change in consumption patterns.

"Unless something is done about the inexorable rise in emissions from the livestock sector, which already accounts for about 14.5% of global emissions, the expected trend is upwards because meat and dairy are two of the fastest growing sub-sectors of agriculture," said lead author Rob Bailey, research director of energy, environment and resources at international affairs think-tank Chatham House, which produced the report.

"There is an increasing body of academic research that is of the view that unless something is done then the 2C target is off the table because there is not going to enough of the available global carbon budget left."

'Largely absent'

The study commissioned a 12-nation survey from pollsters Ipsos MORI to assess consumer awareness on the issue.

It found that 64% of respondents identified exhaust emissions from global transport as a major contributor to climate change, compared with 29% considering emissions from the production of meat and dairy as a major source of greenhouse gases.

"The issue of comparing transport and livestock emissions is just one example of what we see as an awareness gap on the topic of livestock and climate change," Mr Bailey explained.

"Across all the sectors we looked at in the survey, consumer awareness of the role of the livestock sector as a contributor to climate change was the lowest across all the countries were surveyed.

"That's a problem because what we also discovered in the survey was that the willingness of consumers to take action and reduce their emissions was very closely linked to their level of awareness of a particular issue.

Mr Bailey suggested one reason for the lack of awareness among people could be a result of agriculture being "largely absent" from the international negotiations on climate change.

"Even if you look at national mitigation plans for developed and developing countries, the agriculture sector is conspicuous by its absence," he observed.

"The most you get is some kind of voluntary initiative led by the private sector to reduce emission. In terms of public policy and regulation, there is almost nothing. There is a huge policy gap.

"This is odd given the size of the emissions the sector constitutes. If you look at other areas with comparable emissions, such as deforestation or transport, there is a whole range of policies that are being put in place."

However, the survey for the report, Livestock - Climate Change's Forgotten Sector, did identify potentially positive aspects among respondents.

It found that some of the greatest potential for behaviour change was in the emerging economies where much of the forecasted increase in consumption of livestock products was expected to occur.

"We found that in countries like Brazil, India and China was that consumers were more accepting of the science on climate change," said Mr Bailey.

"They were also more aware of the role of the livestock sector in causing climate change and they were more willing to reduce their carbon footprints through reducing their consumption of meat and dairy products.

"They also gave climate change a higher weighting in their food purchasing decisions."

But he added that per-capita consumption was currently much higher in developed nation, where there appeared to be "much lower levels of awareness and lower levels of willingness to engage with the issue".

'Vicious circle'

If people are not aware of the issue then it is unlikely that there will be public pressure on politicians to put the issue of emissions from the livestock sector on the negotiating table. In turn, if the issue is not on the political agenda, people are likely to remain unaware of the issue.

"Another result of this vicious circle is that there is a real lack of research on this issue because governments are not really seeing this as an area of public policy to pursue," Mr Bailey said.

"They are therefore not funding research on the topic. This was one of the things identified in the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's] fifth assessment report. In the land-use and agriculture sectors, some of the possibly biggest opportunities to reduce emissions are through demand-side actions yet there is almost no research on the best way to go about that.

"The challenge is how you break that vicious circle. Hopefully once that starts to happen then governments will feel more confident and safer to tackle the agenda in a more effective way."

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