Consultancy advises radical shift in western diet to combat climate change

11 May 2018 5 min. read

Western society must reevaluate its relationship with meat if global agriculture is to achieve the carbon emissions targets set by the Paris Agreement, argues a new report. With input from energy consultancy Ecofys, Climate Action Tracker’s latest analysis highlights both supply and demand side actions to help reduce emissions and mitigate climate change.

The Paris climate accord, signed in New York in the spring of 2016, set a long-term global goal of achieving ‘net-zero’ emissions of greenhouse gases. Signatories also pledged to help prevent global average temperatures rising more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

To meet these targets, a large body of scientific knowledge and analysis has evolved with input from consultancies with expertise in the energy, technology and agricultural industries among others.

One such partnership between a consulting firm and the world of scientific research can be found in Ecofys’ relationship with the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) – a collaborative research assessment. Together, with Climate Analytics and the New Climate Institute, they have authored “What’s On The Table? Mitigating Agricultural Emissions While Achieving Food Security”.

Worldwide agricultural non-CO2 emissions

In the latest report from its decarbonisation series, the CAT outlines potential actions to help stabilise the global emissions crisis. Tackling the issue from both a supply and demand perspective, it advises that dramatic changes in both farming practices and consumer behaviour are necessary if the Paris accord is to stand any chance of success.

Supply and demand

The analysis reveals that the agricultural industry generates around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and close to 50% of the non-CO2 emissions (chiefly nitrous oxide and methane). Two of the largest sources of non-CO2 emissions come from enteric fermentation (the production of methane in ruminants’ digestive tracts), and manure. Cattle are the single largest contributors to both sources of emissions.

Although more efficient farming practices could be deployed to reduce emissions produced this way, the CAT and Ecofys report concludes that the most effective course of action would be to reduce animal stocks worldwide. This would simultaneously help reduce the CO2 emissions generated by the livestock industry as a whole.

Having established that less livestock equals less emissions, the report moves on to investigate the demand side of the climate challenge.

Daily calories consumption levels

Citizens of developed countries consume, on average, nearly twice as much meat as is recommended by national health institutions. The problem is compounded by the substantial food waste that occurs along the supply chain, especially at the farming and distribution levels.

"Over a third of the food we produce—about 1.3 billion tonnes each year—is wasted. If food waste were a country it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, with an estimated 2011 level of 3.5 GtCO2e/year," said Yvonne Deng, a management consultant at Ecofys, which is a Navigant company.


While this presents an enormous logistical and organisational challenge, changing consumer habits and the West’s relationship with meat is a different kind of obstacle. The report cites advice from the UK’s National Health Service which recommends that adults consume no more than 70 grams of red meat, whether processed or not, per day. As noted above, the average Brit consumes almost twice this amount. Yet the report cites favourably analysis which suggests bringing down average consumption to 43 grams per day.

This would save some five million lives globally from heart disease, cancer and strokes associated with overzealous meat consumption, particularly of processed red meat. The report also implied that, if developed countries cut back on meat consumption, perhaps more lives could be saved in the long run by reversing carbon emissions’ upwards trajectory. Alarmingly, the authors opine that supply side changes alone are unlikely to have this effect.

“Dietary shifts could reduce land demand by more than one billion hectares and even bend the emissions curve downwards, something which technical mitigation alone is not expected to do. In fact, some governments have already introduced policies to encourage dietary changes because of their public health benefits,” said Claire Fyson from Climate Analytics.

Mitigation of non-Co2 agricultural emissions

The authors are adamant that a dietary shift away from meat consumption could be managed without compromising global health, despite the world’s population being projected to increase by 15% in the next decade or so. This would achieved through the freeing up of land (70% of global agricultural land use is devoted to producing animal feed) and the smart reduction of food waste.

Policies to encourage a shift in consumer behaviour should include national investment in the promotion of healthy diets, the report concludes. Mention is also made of governments’ subsidising food products that generate less greenhouse gases in their production and distribution. This is noted with the caveat that “beef does not equal beef” in climate terms, adding to an already complex picture the fact that there exists a range of different methods for feeding cattle, each with unique advantages and drawbacks.