Meat and climate change: an interview with Chatham House’s Laura Wellesley

Meat and climate change: an interview with Chatham House’s Laura Wellesley
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
18 February 2016

In an interesting and important detour from its usual focus on international conflict and diplomacy, in 2014 Chatham House – the Royal Institute of International Affairs – established a research project on Diet and Climate Change. Working with the Glasgow University Media Group, the project aims to “review public understanding and behaviour in relation to meat and dairy consumption and its impact on greenhouse gas emissions.”

With the research finding “public awareness of the link between diet and climate change is very low”, I interviewed Laura Wellesley, a Research Associate in the Energy, Environment and Resources department at Chatham House and project leader, in an attempt to get the research results out to a wider audience.

Ian Sinclair: What is the relationship between meat and dairy consumption and climate change?

Laura Wellesley: Our appetite for meat and dairy products is a key driver of climate change. Globally, the livestock sector contributes 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions – that’s the same as exhaust fumes from every car, truck, plane, train and boat on the planet.

IS: How, exactly, does meat and dairy consumption contribute to climate change?

LW: Greenhouse gases are emitted from every point along the meat and dairy supply chains. Methane and nitrous oxide, two of the most potent greenhouse gases, are released by the animals themselves, from their manure and from the fertilizers used to grow their feed, combining with CO2 emissions emitted when land is cleared for crop production and grazing, and from machinery used to house, feed, slaughter, process and transport animals and animal products.

IS: You argue that a significant reduction in meat consumption would be a “win-win”. What do you mean by this?

LW: Global meat consumption has already reached unsustainable levels and is expected to increase by 76% by 2050. That means that, even with ambitious mitigation to lower the emissions intensity of livestock production the world over, emissions from the sector will continue to rise, eating up a huge slice of the remaining carbon budget. The upshot is that, without a significant reduction in global meat-eating, keeping global warming below two degrees will be nearly impossible.

But a global shift to healthy, sustainable levels of meat consumption would also be a ‘win’ for global public health. Meat consumption in most industrialised countries has reached excessive levels: across the EU, the average person currently eats around twice as much as is deemed healthy; in the US, it’s three times this amount. And the emerging economies are fast catching up.

Overconsumption of meat products – particularly red and processed meat – is contributing to a rise in obesity numbers and in the incidence of non-communicable diseases like type-2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Encouraging a reduction in meat consumption amongst those populations who are currently over-consuming meat would help to tackle the growing social and economic costs of diet-related diseases.

IS: You argue that one reason meat remains off the policy agenda is because the government fears a backlash from the voting public. What has your research discovered about public opinion and possibilities for reducing our meat consumption?

LW: Our research showed a considerable awareness gap around the links between diet and climate change. While familiar with the notion of GHG [Greenhouse Gas] emissions from transport and heavy industry, focus group participants in Brazil, China, the UK and the US were largely unaware of the way in which our consumption patterns contribute to climate change. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, findings from our multinational opinion survey and focus groups showed that concerns over environmental sustainability are far less important in influencing people’s food choices than more immediate factors like health concerns, taste and price.

But what our research also suggests is that the public’s disengagement with the diet-climate relationship is not the result of active resistance. Instead, it’s the product of a lack of awareness that has been sustained through government inaction. And findings from the focus group discussions point to a public that expects governments to intervene on their behalf, that is unlikely to stage sustained resistance to policy interventions, and that looks to governments to spearhead change where it is needed.

Encouraging a reduction in meat-eating will not be easy. But these findings indicate that, were governments to signal the urgent need for change and to initiate a public debate around the need for dietary change, the public’s disengagement would likely dissipate.

IS: What practical steps do you think governments should be taking to produce a reduction in our meat and dairy consumption?

LW: There’s no one silver bullet: a comprehensive package of policies and strategies will be needed if diets are to change at the scale needed.

Awareness-raising will be an important first step, but it won’t be enough. Governments will need to work with industry, civil society and the media to implement ‘nudge’ tactics in retail environments, and to make it cheaper, easier and more appealing to eat more plant-based foods. Including sustainability standards in public procurement guidelines and changing the default option in school and hospital canteens will be important pieces of the puzzle, but governments will also need to consider more interventionist measures like a carbon tax on animal products if we are to realize change at the scale required.

These strategies will work best when implemented by a range of actors – governments, industry, civil society groups, public figures – working together to promote a common message. But the bottom line is that governments need to initiate a conversation around unsustainable meat consumption – at the national level, but also through international platforms – and overcome the taboo associated with policy interventions on diets. If we are to avoid dangerous climate change, we cannot afford to continue on the current path of inaction.

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