Our Beef With the Climate Negotiations

Raychel Santo, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Without drastic reductions in global meat and dairy consumption, the most severe and irreversible climate change scenarios will be unavoidable.

This was the message my colleagues and I at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future presented last December at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris. Despite its urgency, dietary change was essentially off the radar at the event. Out of the hundreds of sessions at COP21, ours — part of a panel hosted by the Meatless Monday campaign — was one of only two that addressed the topic.

Our resolve to elevate this issue stems from our analysis of the scientific literature on climate change and dietary patterns. This extensive body of research shows that if global demand for meat and dairy products continues to increase as projected, global average temperature rise will almost certainly exceed 2°C — the limit agreed upon by world leaders to avoid the most severe and irreversible climate consequences. The more ambitious goal of 1.5°C would be out of the question. This is even with dramatic emissions reductions across energy, transportation, industry, and other non‐agricultural sectors.

We aren’t the only ones pressing this message — Chatham House and the World Resources Institute have reached similar conclusions. Other organizations, including the Food Climate Research Network and Brighter Green, are also tackling the difficult topic.

Some populations eat significantly higher quantities of animal products than others, and they carry the greatest burden of responsibility for helping to achieve the necessary reductions. The average American diet, for example, is associated with nearly twice the GHG emissions as those associated with the global average. Nearly all (80–90%) of these emissions are related to the consumption of animal-based foods.

Since COP21, little has been done to advance these issues on the global agenda. International leaders are currently gathered at COP22 in Morocco to detail plans for meeting the climate mitigation targets signed last December. None of the participating countries have identified measures to address dietary consumption patterns. This omission is critical, especially given that the voluntary commitments established in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions add up to 2.7°C, far beyond the 1.5–2°C threshold for global mean temperature rise.

We’ve been strategizing with other organizations and academics on how to raise the issue of agriculture and dietary consumption on the COP22 agenda. Yet, we’ve identified only three sessions that will broach these topics again this year, and not the FAO sessions that most diplomats attend.

The U.S. federal government has also been slow to act. Ignoring strong recommendations from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the USDA and HHS failed to include sustainability-based recommendations to eat less meat in the dietary guidance they issued for the American public. Fortunately, a few other countries are promoting these changes.

While these issues aren’t yet advancing on global or national policy agendas, we’re seeing progress is in other areas. Public education efforts, such as the Years of Living Dangerously episode on Amazonian deforestation, are raising awareness of food-climate connections. Consumer demand and new institutional procurement policies are prompting universities and hospitals to offer more plant-based options. Industry analysts have identified widespread trends towards flexitarian eating and plant-based proteins. Meatless Monday campaigns are active in 44 countries.

Many factors contribute to making high-meat, high-dairy diets the norm, including agricultural, economic and trade policies (heavily influenced by industry lobbying); marketing; and cultural ideas around what constitutes a meal. If we want a chance of avoiding the most catastrophic climate change scenarios, we must quickly mobilize to leverage these drivers. In the meantime, we can’t afford to wait for policy change to start shifting our diets.


Raychel Santo is a program coordinator at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, where she works on a variety of research projects related to food policy councils and local/regional food governance, the relationship between diet and climate change, institutional food procurement, and urban agriculture.