Britons should eat less meat to meet climate commitments

Watchdog urges government to recommend meat reducing diets to protect the environment

Cows eating hay inside a stable between metal bars

If the UK is to meet the commitments it made at the Paris climate talks in 2015, then it’s time we stopped eating so much beef and lamb. That’s the conclusion of a report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the government’s climate watchdog.

The UK has pledged to reduce its emissions of harmful greenhouse gases by 80 per cent by 2050, but our fondness for meat is a huge barrier to reaching that goal. Red meat is particularly bad for the environment and human health, and the CCC says cows and sheep are producing a huge 23 million tons of carbon dioxide a year as a result of “enteric fermentation”, which causes them to fart and burp.

In a letter to the environment secretary Michael Gove, the CCC’s chairman, Lord Deben, advised the government to begin to “encourage a shift to healthier diets … with lower red meat and dairy content which will also cut emissions”. But agriculture and the way we farm also needs to be addressed, since farming produces the equivalent of 49 million tons of CO2 a year.

In its report, the CCC said that cutting down on the number of animals raised to become food is the quickest way to meet climate targets: “Reducing ruminant meat production would be the fastest way to meeting net zero emissions, with the majority of methane emissions coming from livestock.”

But diets also needs to change, since there would be little point in farming fewer animals here only to export meat from abroad. As the report observed: “It is consumption that drives emissions. As such, changing dietary patterns in the UK culture would be fundamental to this pathway, with a change from ruminant meat products to pig or poultry meat or plant-based diets.”

While Britain has almost halved its CO2 emissions since 1990 – from 880 million tons to about 450 million – there is still a huge amount of work to do. At Paris a binding commitment was made to knock off another 160 million tons by 2050. Livestock farming and agriculture has a large part to play in that, given that the industry, unlike other sectors, has embraced few if any carbon saving measures. It means it may soon become Britain’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The CCC’s findings chime with those of an Oxford University published in October. Researchers found that countries across the board would miss important carbon-reduction targets unless people began to swap meat and animal products for plant-based foods.