To avoid eating our way towards catastrophic climate change, we must transition to a low-carbon diet. But as the issue of meat consumption slowly gains traction amongst consumers and business, our governments are lagging behind, mostly ignoring it entirely. But how can policymakers help us all to make more sustainable choices for the dinner table?
With the global agriculture sector responsible for up to a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, what we eat can be the single biggest factor in determining our individual carbon footprint. Livestock takes up 83% of farmland and is responsible for more than half of all agricultural emissions, but produces just 18% of our calories and 37% of protein. Livestock production is highly inefficient, and uses vast amounts of energy, land and water, drives deforestation, habitat destruction and species loss. If you thought it couldn’t look much worse, it is one of the fastest growing sectors globally.
It is essential that production methods must become more sustainable, but there is a clear limit to how much this approach can reduce impacts. Ultimately, if we’re serious about reducing our impact on the planet, we need to change our consumption habits. In Europe, that means cutting our consumption of meat and dairy in half by 2050 just to stay within a safe space.
How we got here?
As the global population has expanded, our wallets and our waistlines have grown too. With more cash in our pockets, diets have shifted to include more refined sugars, fats, oils and importantly, meat. Although meat consumption has plateaued in the developed world, it sits at highly unsustainable levels, with implications for our health and links to numerous chronic diseases. In the developing world meat consumption continues to skyrocket, meaning a global trend leading to emissions completely incompatible with the Paris Agreement’s 2°C goal.
Mooving the norm
Meat consumption is deep-rooted in Western culture, connected to high social status, prestige and masculinity. However, meat’s societal role is changing, as the ethical and nutritional foundation of a meat-based diet are increasingly questioned, particularly amongst millennials. As such, reduced meat consumption is a trend being witnessed across many parts of Europe, and businesses are constantly innovating new alternatives, such as Impossible Burger’s plant-based “meat” that looks, feels, tastes and smells like ground beef.
Price, taste, quality and health often trump any concerns of climate impact when making choices about what we eat. In general, consumers are not equipped with adequate knowledge and information to make informed choices. Even when we are, the habitual daily process of eating is becomes automatic, leading to a disconnect between our values and our actions. Price is also a significant factor for many, with a perception that a healthy and sustainable diet is more expensive (although in reality non-meat alternatives are often cheaper per gram of protein).
How to meat our targets?
To effectively tackle climate change, we all must act. Consumers and business are starting to take steps in the right direction, but are meeting barriers outlined above. From public smoking bans and taxation on alcohol, to subsidies for electric vehicles and renewable energy, there is a strong precedent for governments to regulate for and incentivise decision-making that reduces harm to its citizens. On meat consumption however, they remain silent, creating a cycle of inertia, where inaction leads to low public awareness, entrenching it as a low policy priority.
And so, we ask: how can government policy help consumers to make more sustainable dietary choices, and ultimately reduce emissions from the agricultural sector?
The first step is to provide reliable information through campaigns, education and labelling. As we become more informed on the issue, analysis suggests that we are more likely to take action personally, as well as to support further government intervention. Utilising health co-benefits in the messaging can also strengthen the case and reach new audiences, as health is a more relatable concept for many. As such, information campaigns on a ‘healthy and sustainable diet’ could prove an effective spearhead to this policy effort, and research indicates that this policy shouldn’t meet much political opposition.
However, information alone is not enough, as a gap emerges between consumers’ principles and our actions. To change the norm and break habits, a more holistic approach is needed. Government must start to lead by example, supporting first-mover businesses and increasing meat-free options in schools, hospitals and public offices. Nudging like this does change behaviour, but to achieve meaningful reductions in emissions, a financial (dis)incentive, i.e. a tax on meat, may well be necessary. Tobacco, sugar and carbon all set a precedent for governments introducing policy that informs, nudges and taxes us away from damaging levels of consumption — meat must follow suit.
The curious case of Denmark
In Denmark each person gobbles down a staggering 81kgs of meat every year, and yet 55% of the meat-loving nation agree that politicians should introduce policy to reduce the climate impact of food consumption. Support is particularly strong amongst millennials, indicating a nascent change in attitude towards notable public demand for action.
The Danish government marked its first step on this journey with the announcement of climate labelling of food in their recent climate plan. However, a proposal for a meat tax by the green party, ‘The Alternative’, continues to be shot down by the political mainstream. Many opponents of the tax cite the risk of worsening social inequality, but there is a clear lack of political willpower to think creatively and avert such risks through smart and equitable ways of distributing tax revenues and offsetting the problems caused by meat consumption.
Ultimately, if governments fail to take holistic action on reducing meat consumption, we will overshoot 2°C. But as public support grows, policymakers should enact bold and ambitious plans by helping consumers to make better choices. Not to do so would be a missed opportunity to scrape the carbon off our plates.
Nic Craig is an interdisciplinary climate, energy and sustainability researcher who bridges science and policy, with a focus on the Nordic and Arctic regions. He currently works for Climate KIC and Polar Research and Policy Initiative, and is completing a Climate Change MSc at the University of Copenhagen.