Meat and Dairy Consumption Fuelling Climate Change

Far reaching shifts in the global consumption of animal products are crucial to achieving climate change objectives, yet new research commissioned by Chatham House into public understanding of the link between eating meat and dairy and climate change reveals a major lack of awareness. Global greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector are estimated to account for 14.5 per cent of the global total.

Livestock. © Chatham House / iStockphoto

In a ground-breaking 12 country survey undertaken by Ipsos MORI, including Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa, over twice as many respondents identified exhaust emissions from global transport as a major contributor to climate change, as identified emissions from the production of meat and dairy – 64 per cent vs. 29 per cent – even though overall emissions are almost equal between the two.

“Meat and dairy consumption is set to grow rapidly in the next 40 years and it is unlikely dangerous climate change can be avoided unless consumption falls. Addressing dietary trends has to be part of an international strategy to reduce emissions,” said Rob Bailey, lead author and Research Director, Energy, Environment and Resources. “Ultimately, as with energy use, consumers need to change their behaviour and this survey shows a substantial lack of awareness of this.”

The survey showed that consumers with a higher level of awareness of the greenhouse gases associated with production were more likely to indicate willingness to reduce their meat and dairy consumption for climate objectives. Therefore, work to close this awareness gap is likely to be an important precondition for behaviour change.

Encouragingly, with much of the projected increase in meat and dairy consumption expected in emerging economies, respondents in Brazil, India and China demonstrated greater consideration of climate change in their food choices, and a greater willingness to modify their consumption than the average of the countries assessed. However, with consumption per head of population much higher in developed countries, lower levels of awareness in countries like the US highlight the extent of the challenge.

While governments and environmental groups have, so far, been reluctant to pursue policies or campaigns to encourage people to eat less meat and dairy due to a variety of factors, not least fear of backlash for intruding on people’s lifestyle choices, their assumptions are untested and evidence from the research suggests potential public receptivity.

Key Findings of the Survey:

Consumption of meat and dairy produce is a major driver of climate change.

  • Greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector are estimated to account for 14.5 per cent of the global total, more than direct emissions from the transport sector.
  • Even with ambitious supply-side action to reduce the emissions intensity of livestock production, rising global demand for meat and dairy produce means emissions will continue to rise.

Shifting global demand for meat and dairy produce is central to achieving climate goals.

  • Recent analyses have shown that it is unlikely global temperature rises can be kept below two degrees Celsius without a shift in global meat and dairy consumption.
  • Reducing demand for animal products could also significantly reduce mitigation costs in non-agricultural sectors by increasing their available carbon budget.

However, there is a striking paucity of efforts to reduce consumption of meat and dairy products.

  • A number of factors, not least fear of backlash, have made governments and environmental groups reluctant to pursue policies or campaigns to shift consumer behaviour.
  • The lack of attention afforded to the issue among policy-makers and opinion-formers contributes to a lack of research on how best to reduce meat and dairy consumption.
  • As a first step in addressing this lack of research, Ipsos MORI was commissioned by Chatham House to undertake the first multi-country, multilingual online survey specifically to explore public attitudes on the relationship between meat and dairy consumption and climate change.