Reducing meat and dairy consumption is crucial to bringing down agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and meeting UN climate change targets, according to new research.
But to do so people must change the way they think about meat and food should include a 'climate cost' in the price, according to one of the authors of the research study, Fredrik Hedenus.
Carbon dioxide emissions from the energy and transportation sectors currently account for the largest share of climate pollution.
However, the study from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, shows that eliminating these emissions would not guarantee staying below the UN target of limiting global warming to 2 °C.
The authors state: "Emissions from agriculture threaten to keep increasing as global meat and dairy consumption increases.
"If agricultural emissions are not addressed, nitrous oxide from fields and methane from livestock may double by 2070. This alone would make meeting the climate target essentially impossible."
Larger increases in livestock productivity as well as substantial implementation of technical mitigation measures - such as giving cows and sheep (ruminants) fat in their food on top of grass, so they produce less methane - can go a long way to help meet the targets.
"However, only by also assuming reduced meat and dairy consumption do we find agricultural emission levels that do not take more than half of the total emissions space in 2070", the study concluded.
Attitudes and alternatives
Researchers looked at scenarios where ruminant meat and dairy consumption was reduced by 75% by replacing it with other meat (pork and poultry) or replacing it with cereals and pulses.
Speaking to Foodnavigator.com, Hedenus explained: "We have a budget of emissions. If you have high emissions from food you have to reduce fossil fuels etc. They are connected.
"The 75% figure was just to reflect what the impact would be. We couldn't say you need to reduce by 75%. It all depends on how much you reduce in the energy sector.
"I think we need to do two things, We have to change our culture in general. We view meat as the centre of the meal and something that, when we are wealthy we eat more of."
Secondly he said: "In Europe we pay for our carbon emissions from energy but we don't pay anything for the greenhouse gas emissions from food.
"If you include the climate costs in food, that would mean that it would be cheaper to eat climate-friendly food and people would tend to eat less, of beef for instance.
However, he added it was politically difficult to tell people what to eat.
The UN has set a target of cutting emissions by 2020 to a level that could keep a global, 21st century temperature rise under 2 °C . Cattle are responsible for about 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions.
Source: Climatic Change
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1007/s10584-014-1104-5
"The importance of reduced meat and dairy consumption for meeting stringent climate change targets"
Authors: Fredrik Hedenus, Stefan Wirsenius, Daniel J. A. Johansson