Food emissions would drop by two-thirds if world went meat free

Widespread adoption of a vegetarian diet could result in 63 per cent drop in greenhouse gases as population grows

Map of world made up of fruit and vegetables and vegetarian 'V' symbol

Campaigns such as Meat Free Monday have a significant role to play in future if the harmful emissions associated with meat consumption are to be kept within safe limits. That’s the inference of a new report that says our growing global population will send greenhouse gases into overdrive unless something is done to curb the world’s appetite for meat – and links the environmental, health and economic cases for doing so.

According to the report, the dangerous gases associated with livestock farming could be slashed by almost two-thirds if significant numbers were to turn to meat-free eating – vital if global warming is to be kept within the “safe” threshold of a 2°C rise in temperature agreed at the COP21 climate talks in Paris last year.

Researchers at the Oxford Martin School say that food and farming will be responsible for almost half of the planet’s “carbon budget” by 2050 but that cutting meat out of our diets, or simply cutting down on the amount we eat, will have a major impact on associated emissions. Widespread adoption of a meat free diet could see emissions drop by 63 per cent, the report says, or 70 per cent if veganism were taken up.

The findings suggest it is long past time for governments to begin looking at ways to encourage consumers and citizens to make the healthy choice and eat less meat – something Meat Free Monday has been advocating since 2009.

“Imbalanced diets, such as diets low in fruits and vegetables and high in red and processed meat, are responsible for the greatest health burden globally and in most regions,” said lead author Dr Marco Springmann. “At the same time, the food system is responsible [currently] for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore a major driver of climate change.”

Calculating the health and financial cost of continuing to eat more meat could “make more of an impression” in terms of winning governments over to promoting plant-based eating, he added. Changing the way we eat could save $1 trillion a year by improving people’s health and therefore productivity. Adding in lives saved, that figure would grow to $30 trillion, not to mention the added benefits of limiting extreme weather events.

“Linking health and climate change in challenging our eating habits could have more effect than focusing on each of these issues alone,” said Springmann. “By combining the two benefits, you have a more powerful impact.” He added: “The climate change impacts of the food system will require more than just technological changes. Adopting healthier and more environmentally sustainable diets can be a large stop in the right direction.”

The report, Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change co-benefits of dietary change, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.