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You Have No Idea How Much Your Diet Impacts Climate Change

But, when people understand the link between human activities and global warming, they are — by and large — willing to change their dietary habits.

by Laura Dattaro
Dec 4 2014, 10:35pm

Image via Flickr

Debates about how to combat climate change usually revolve around how to cut emissions from smokestacks and vehicle tailpipes. But that's just one part of the problem. Another big contributor to climate change is meat and dairy consumption.

Globally, raising livestock accounts for 14.5 percent of overall emissions. In the US, the agricultural sector, which includes livestock production and the crops used to feed all the nation's cows and poultry, accounts for 10 percent of all the greenhouse gases produced annually. 

But a new report from Chatham House found the public was largely unaware of the link between an animal-based diet and climate change.

But, there's an upside.

Robert Bailey, a research director at the London-based think tank, told VICE News: "What we found on the specific case of livestock and climate change is that where people accept the science of climate change, then one of the most useful things you can do to get them to be more willing to change their diet is provide them with more information."

Exposure to extreme weather is unlikely to affect the views of a climate denier. Read more here.

The researchers surveyed at least 1,000 people in each of 12 developed and emerging economies: Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Poland, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They asked respondents about their motivations for which foods they buy, how much they know about different sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and their willingness to change their eating habits in order to reduce their personal environmental footprints. Finally, they asked whether the respondents believed human activities were contributing to climate change.

They found that a willingness to change personal habits was linked to two factors - acknowledgement that humans are driving global warming and knowledge that one's lifestyle choices have an impact on the environment. Of those who said they were aware of the connection between diet and climate change, about 50 percent said they had already changed their diets or were likely to do so in the future. Only about 30 percent of those who said they were unaware of the diet-climate link expressed the same willingness to change what they consume.

"One of the things we need to do next is understand what are the best levers for translating willingness to change into action," Bailey told VICE News. "And that's probably going to change from country to country."

Part of the issue is the vast differences in the amount of meat and dairy each country consumes, particularly since many of the heartiest meat eaters are also residents of countries that are also burning the greatest amounts of fossil fuels. The report identifies China as the biggest consumer of meat, digesting 165 billion pounds in 2011, double the 82 billion pounds eaten by the second most meat-hungry country, the United States. China also leads in milk and egg consumption, tying with India at around 138 billion pounds.

'The countries where meat consumption, particularly red meat consumption, is already at levels that are unhealthy are the ones that should be reducing.'

But the picture changes when considering per capita consumption. China consumes about 58.2 pounds of meat per person per year, while people in the United States consume about 265 pounds annually, on average. Brazilians consume an average of about 188 pounds annually.

"The countries where meat consumption, particularly red meat consumption, is already at levels that are unhealthy are the ones that should be reducing," Doug Boucher, a biologist and director of climate research and analysis for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told VICE News. "In the countries where consumption is considerably lower, I think the effort ought to be to shift toward low-emissions meat and dairy products rather than to tell them don't eat any more meat. The unfairness of that is so palpable that they're not going to buy that, and there's no reason they should either."

Red meat production emits significantly more greenhouse gases than other animal products, like poultry or pork, according to research Boucher published in Nature Climate Change last year. A 2007 article in The Lancet found that an ideal target for global animal consumption would be about 72 pounds per person per year, with red meat comprising no more than 40 pounds.

The link between increased information and a willingness to change habits may be a sign of hope amid a growing body of research that shows that more information is unlikely to change an individual's mind on climate change. But a change in diet may be a more likely solution than some of the grander-scale fixes for other sectors, like fitting a home with solar panels.

Exposure to extreme weather is unlikely to affect the views of a climate denier. Read more here.

"Some of the changes require really heavy lifting, they're really expensive," Anna Lappe, co-founder of the Small Planet Institute and author of Diet for a Hot Planet, told VICE News. "Reducing how many grams of meat you're eating in a day is actually a lot more of an accessible action people can take. It doesn't surprise me that people were saying, 'Wait a second, sure, I don't have to have bacon every morning.'"

The Chatham House report also highlights the relative lack of attention agriculture has received from policymakers. Out of 55 developing countries that have submitted plans to the United Nations on how they will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, only Brazil established a numerical target for reducing emissions from livestock production. Developed countries don't fare much better - only Bulgaria and France have submitted targets.

Bailey says most governments are hesitant to make broad reaching moves, such as taxing the meat and dairy industries for their emissions, out of fear of a public backlash. But they could focus on less intrusive efforts, like public education campaigns and food labeling requirements.  

"It might be OK to subsidize renewable energy to meet climate change objectives," Bailey told VICE News. "But when you actually get to the level where you're effectively bringing policies into people's homes and placing constraints on what they eat at the table, then you're open to accusations of nanny-stateism. I think that's a real concern and it needs to be addressed."

Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro

Image via Flickr