When It Comes to Climate Change, the Meat of the Matter May be What We Eat

Delegates at the Paris climate talks are taking the issue of livestock production and consumption very seriously.
A French dairy farmer works near his cows at his farm in La Planche, near Nantes, western France. (Photo: Stephane Mahe/Reuters)
Dec 10, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The work being done by international climate negotiators at COP21, the Paris conference on climate change that’s in its final days, is not solely focused on huge swaths of forests and castle-like power plants. There’s a domestic scale to the work being conducted—and the focus can be small as what food is on your dinner plate.

While reducing emissions on a global scale may seem to be something only governments are capable of achieving, the relationship between meat and climate change shows that there are individual, societal, and industry-based changes that can be undertaken to curb climate change. Perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger put it best on Tuesday, when the onetime Terminator and California governor said that people need to cut back on meat consumption in order to save the planet. He fell short of calling for all-out vegetarianism and argued in an interview with the BBC, “People will buy in to stop eating meat one or two days a week—you have to start slowly. It’s a very big challenge, but it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.” Schwarzenegger is even confident that you can get built like his former Mr. Universe self without gorging on animal protein.

Globally, livestock production accounts for about 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and negotiators and activists in Paris who seek to reduce that number are talking about the means of production and consumption alike. While the wonkier discussions about how livestock is raised—and the potential for global emission reduction goals for the agriculture industry—may be bigger news, the conversation about what we eat and how much of it is far more easier to wrap one’s head around.

Schwarzenegger’s sentiment was, in a way, echoed at a Wednesday panel hosted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. There, the focus was on “sporadic vegetarianism,” such as that practiced by people who observe Meatless Monday—a campaign that was started at Johns Hopkins in 2003.

“Unfortunately, the connection of meat consumption to climate change is not garnering the serious attention it deserves,” Roni Neff, director of the Food System Sustainability Program at the Center for a Livable Future, said at the event. “Much of the talk at COP21 is focused on government policies in energy and transportation, but we can’t get from here to there without also changing diets.”

Doing so would require a massive reversal of course, as meat consumption is rising globally. Emerging economies—the same ones that rich Western nations are trying to wean off fossil fuels—have developed middle-class populations that want a taste of luxury, which is to say, meat. To keep in line with the less than 2 degrees Celsius rise in global temperature that climate negotiators are working toward in Paris, the Center for a Livable Future is calling for meat and dairy consumption to drop by a full 75 percent by 2050.

But keeping livestock emissions in check may not require such a massive (and perhaps culturally impossible) reduction in meat consumption in order to keep below the 2-degree threshold if the way cattle and other animals are raised changes significantly. That too, according to Global Meat News, could be a potential outcome of the international conference. The trade publication reported that the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice, which works to develop and disseminate climate-friendly tech around the globe, “is expected to be given and enhanced and more meaningful role following any agreement” that comes out of Paris. And that could mean low-carbon—or possibly carbon-positive—practices for raising livestock being pushed to farmers and ranchers around the world.

The development “shows there’s an understanding that cutting emissions is not just about cutting carbon or preserving rainforests, that it’s about meat and agriculture, the fact people need to eat,” Jonathan Scurlock, who advises the National Farmers’ Union in the U.K. on climate issues, told Global Meat News.