The UN Climate Change Champion for COP27, Dr Mohieldin, is right to make agriculture and food system transition the focus of the COP in Egypt this week. So far, the role of industrial agriculture systems in driving global warming has been ominously absent from international climate fora. Yet the issue of reducing industrial meat production – critical for achieving Paris goals – is the big cow in the room at COP27.
Research clearly shows that to reach the 1.5C target agreed in Paris there is no option but to reduce meat consumption, and in turn, meat production – even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated overnight. This is because livestock production is responsible for as much greenhouse gas emissions as all the world’s cars, trucks, planes and ships, when the impact of their feed is taken into account.
One of the main culprits of the oversized role of animal farming in global emissions is methane, a powerful greenhouse gas with 80 times the heating effect of carbon. According to the IPCC, methane has caused 30% of the observed global warming since the Industrial Revolution. And this methane is largely from cow burps and hog manure, that produce more methane emissions than oil, gas, coal and bioenergy combined.
While the call to address methane emissions now resounds throughout the international climate community thanks to the Global Methane Pledge, solutions continue to ignore the most effective and efficient way to reduce methane: reducing the total number of farmed animals on the planet. Instead, conversations have focused on reducing emissions through improvements to oil and gas infrastructure and on mitigation technologies for livestock. Decisionmakers are currently asking, if methane comes largely from cow burps, can we feed cows different additives or give them vaccines that make their belches less full of methane? But shouldn’t they be asking how can we reduce the total number of cows altogether?
Animal agriculture take up 77% of the world’s farmland to produce a mere 18% of the global calories and 37% of all proteins.
Another source of the massive climate impact of livestock production is land use. Animal agriculture take up 77% of the world’s farmland to produce a mere 18% of the global calories and 37% of all proteins. When considering how to feed a growing and richer global population on a warming planet, the land used to feed animals (both with feed crops and pasture) is exponentially more useful as a source of grains, vegetables, pulses and legumes to feed people directly.
Moreover, solutions focused on minimizing total meat production not only reduce emissions, but also offer a negative carbon strategy, meaning the land freed up from raising animals or animal feed crops can also be repurposed as carbon sinks. In other words, reducing meat production not only avoids emissions from raising animals, but can increase global carbon storage over time. Likewise, lower meat production and consumption offers benefits beyond climate, helping to address water scarcity and pollution, air pollution, microbial resistance, deforestation and biodiversity loss.
Reducing meat production
While reducing meat production requires nuance in low-income and food insecure economies, there is an obvious and urgent need to reduce meat consumption in the Global North. It is a hard fact that people in the EU, UK and the US eat too much animal protein, way more than their bodies need. For instance, the North American consumes 638% the recommended level of red meat according to the Scientific Commission EAT-Lancet. Europeans eat twice as much meat as the world’s average.
But as leading research shows, efforts to convince people to eat less meat are a long shot. Even the most progressive markets in terms of diet shifts such as the EU are 300% off from achieving the changes in consumption necessary for Paris goals. Instead, what we need is to create the right choice context for consumers to adopt more sustainable diets – a context in which sustainable proteins are cheaper, healthier, tastier, and more convenient than unsustainable ones. By doing so sustainable diets can become the choice by default and not the exception.
Even small changes in meat consumption in Global North countries can have massive climate and food security implications. As shown in a recent Madre Brava analysis, if Europeans ate meat just one less day per week, we would save the same amount of grain for animal feed as all the grain produced by Ukraine in 2020.
So as meat consumption continues to rise, and food security worsens, this COP must prioritize meat reduction as a climate solution. In particular, countries in the Global North have an opportunity to lead in meat reduction strategies and include targets for reducing meat production as part of their NDCs.
If we have any chance of achieving Paris goals, the global climate community must move beyond efficiency and tech solutions in livestock production to prioritize industrial meat reduction too. By addressing the big cow in the room, the world’s leaders can ensure food security, global nutrition, and climate stability.