More meat eating risks climate chaos

Meat being prepared
Copyright: Alfredo Caliz/Panos

Speed read

  • Meat consumption releases same amount of carbon as all world’s vehicles
  • Meat demand by growing middle class forecast to rise 76 per cent by 2050
  • To limit rise, governments should push health benefits of eating less meat

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Growing meat consumption in developing countries poses a significant climatic threat, with meat demand by emerging middle classes expected to rise 76 per cent by 2050, a report warns.

The report, published yesterday by the UK think-tank Chatham House, says meat consumption is responsible for the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as all the world’s vehicles. The study calls for more education and interference by governments to curb meat eating around the globe and make animal husbandry more sustainable.

“We could close the emissions gap by a quarter just by shifting to healthier diets with lower meat consumption.”

Laura Wellesley, Chatham House

“Ahead of [the Paris summit], we’ve seen over 160 countries submit their national pledges outlining what they’re going to do to tackle climate change, and unsustainable diets aren’t mentioned in any of those,” says Laura Wellesley, one of the authors of Changing climate, changing diets and research associate at Chatham House. Without changing diets it would be impossible to meet international goals to curb global warming, she says.

Beef production alone generates 56 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of meat produced, the report says. It warns that demand for meat products is booming across Africa, Latin America and the Middle East — where meat is considered an important part of a meal and is becoming increasingly more affordable.

Using data from surveys around the world and focus groups in Brazil, China, the United Kingdom and the United States, the report concludes that governments may be overestimating public resistance to dietary policies.

Basing efforts to reduce meat consumption on antismoking campaigns would maximise their chance of success, says Eduardo Viola, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia in Brazil. This would mean focusing on the other big concern with eating meat: its link with health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

“We could close the emissions gap by a quarter just by shifting to healthier diets with lower meat consumption,” says Wellesley. “So this should be a really positive public policy avenue.”

But regional problems might scupper such efforts, as developing countries prioritise other issues, including food security and economic crises. In Brazil, Viola says the powerful meat industry is opposed by a weak government, which means a health campaign is likely to fail.

The data from the report also shows that meat consumption increases rapidly as countries develop, but flatlines when average incomes reach around US$25,000 a year, before declining in the wealthiest countries. The report puts this down to higher education and awareness of health issues and climate change in these countries.


Laura Wellesley and others Changing climate, changing diets (Chatham House, 24 November 2015)