Without changing human diets, it's impossible to halt global warming

(greenbiz.com, 24 Oct 2018) The global food system’s environmental impact is large and growing. Nearly a quarter of all planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions come from food production and associated land-use change. And as incomes rise and more people move to cities, consumption of meat and dairy — foods with outsized climate impacts — is on the rise.

The world population is expected to approach 10 billion people by 2050. With this projected increase in population and shifts to higher-meat diets, agriculture alone could account for most of the emissions budget for limiting global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. This level of agricultural emissions would render the goal of keeping warming below 1.5 C impossible.

The below visualization shows trends in meat consumption from 1961 to today, and what’s likely to happen through 2050 if current patterns continue.

Between 2010 and 2050, global meat and dairy consumption is on a course to increase by nearly 70 percent, with beef consumption increasing by more than 80 percent.

The climate impacts of the foods we eat

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of the world’s foremost climate scientists, laid out in a report released early this month the dangers of breaching the 1.5 C and 2 C temperature thresholds. The relationship between food production and climate change is a two-way street: With 2 C of warming, seas will rise by nearly half a meter, rainfall patterns will change, crop yields in the tropics will decrease and harvests from marine fisheries will decline. The world still will face serious climate impacts with 1.5 C of warming, but significantly less so than with 2 C. 

Limiting the global rise in meat consumption — in particular, beef, lamb and goat — is critical for reining in runaway warming. Ruminant meats have the highest resource requirements of any foods we eat. Producing beef, for example, uses 20 times the land and emits 20 times the emissions as producing beans, per gram of protein. Researchers have shown that even when accounting for future improvements in agriculture and reductions in food waste, shifting the diets of higher-income consumers toward plant-based foods remains essential for meeting climate targets.

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greenbiz.com, 24 Oct 2018: Without changing human diets, it's impossible to halt global warming