Pairing Meat with Climate Change at COP21

Choose Less Meat for Less Heat.

Imagine that you attended Paris COP21, the monumental climate change conference. You were hungry but didn’t want to eat meat. A meat-free option was easy to find, right? Not so, as Dr. Roni Neff, a Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) professor, described in a blog post about her fraught search for a meatless meal.

Just like a veggie-centered meal was off the menu, so too were meat production and consumption off the policy menu at COP21.

As Roni Neff and CLF see it, their work is to shift our norms and create policy change in order to reduce meat consumption on a broad scale.

Neff and her CLF colleagues joined the conference at the invitation of the Meatless Monday campaign to explain why meat consumption – not just the energy and transportations sectors – needs be incorporated into any plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the disastrous effects of climate change, even the modest 2-degree Celsius target. While the environmental problems with industrial-scale meat production and consumption are well-established, CLF was there to discuss its new report that makes the connection between meat and its impact on climate change. In the report, Neff and her coauthors say that improved production methods for livestock and poultry can lower greenhouse gas emissions, but ultimately that the number of livestock and especially cattle raised globally must decrease.

As Neff wrote in her blog post about the climate dilemma with meat:

According to the U.N., livestock production is responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The emissions culprits range from cows belching (the leading cause), to off-gassing from manure, to nitrous oxide emissions from animal feed and the energy-intensive process of producing the feeds. In some places, such as the Amazon, clearing land for feed production and pasture is a huge problem, releasing long-held CO2 into the atmosphere when forests are cut down and peat and soil are disturbed.

How then could it be that meat reduction was largely overlooked in the climate conference? (There was just a single session.) Neff and her colleagues ventured seven “guesses” as to why lower meat consumption wasn’t on the agenda:

  1. The negotiators’ lack of knowledge;
  2. The difficulty in monitoring emissions;
  3. The power of the meat industry lobby;
  4. The thwarted effort to shift emission attribution from the country of production to consumption;
  5. The preference for and aspiration to eat meat worldwide;
  6. The values and tradition associated with livestock production; and lastly
  7. That meat consumption is misconceived as strictly an individual behavior with no basis in policy.

Neff says that even getting agriculture, let alone meat consumption, into the climate discussion is a long, hard slog, but it’s worth the effort. In her words:

As I see it, our work is to shift our norms and create policy change in order to reduce meat consumption on a broad scale. It was striking how consistently these mostly policy-oriented people connected personally and emotionally to the meat issue, and did not readily see it in policy terms.

Yet lower meat consumption policies do exist and she, along with the CLF team, Meatless Monday and other likeminded individuals and groups, are up to the challenge.

We also can’t forget the role we play as individuals in making smart choices about what we eat and how sustainably it is (or is not) produced. “Less meat, but better meat” is a sensible way for us to lessen our individual environmental impact while reducing, but not necessarily eliminating, our meat eating. There is great potential for change when sustainable consumer choices merge with smart policy. Together we can move towards a day when the meat-free and less-meat options are as common as the meat-only option, all with hopes of cooler climate.


Image “pink: the other white meat” by Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.