Meat, methane and meeting 1.5 degrees

17th Aug 21 by Jessica Sinclair Taylor, Head of Policy

Will businesses and governments heed the IPCC's nod to methane as a route to 1.5 degrees?

The latest IPCC report, out earlier this week, is a stark wake up call which should strengthen negotiators’ resolve in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow this November. The report was also unequivocal on the role of tackling methane emissions in addressing our clear and present climate danger.

Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas, 28 times more so than carbon emissions at warming the atmosphere. Here’s five things we took away from the IPCC report on methane and what it may mean for public and private sector climate policy.

  1. Methane is the cow in the room when it comes to keeping 1.5 degrees alive

Action to reduce methane emissions can avoid 0.3°C of warming by 2045, according to UNEP. 0.3 degrees may not sound like much – but when you consider the global temperature has already risen by 1.2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and the IPCC projects us to hit 1.5 degrees at or before 2030, 0.3 suddenly seems a whole lot more relevant. Methane’s potency means that cutting levels urgently is one of the most effective ways to slow warming in the short-term (while continuing to cut carbon emissions to prevent longer term warming).

  1. Agriculture – and livestock – are one of the biggest drivers of man-made methane emissions

Figures from the IPCC report show that significantly more methane has been emitted from livestock production than from oil and gas production in the past two decades. Addressing livestock represents a unique opportunity to reduce the chance of dangerous climate change: ruminants are estimated to have produced enough methane to have caused a third of total global warming since the industrial revolution. According to the UNEP, healthy diets which are high in plants and lower in meat and dairy could achieve yearly methane reductions in the region of 15-30Mt/year. 

  1. But meat isn’t on the climate policy table – yet.

Yet for all that there are a variety of so-called ‘shovel ready’ policy measures that politicians could adopt to curb methane emissions – many focused around helping to shift public diets so people eat more plants and less meat and dairy – livestock and methane aren’t yet on the table at COP26, or in the UK’s domestic climate policy.

While our government gestured towards ‘healthy diets from a sustainable food system’ in our Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement, it then took two steps backward by insisting that it will meet its climate targets ‘whilst maintaining people’s freedom of choice, including on their diet’. Yet high-meat diets are currently the default and there is often far less choice of alternatives. As the National Food Strategy argued, to address stubbornly high food system emissions, we need to curb our current appetite for meat.

  1. Climate-friendly farming is possible – and it needs government support

Meat has a place in a 1.5 degree future, but it isn’t the one envisaged by the behemoth livestock companies of the world – the Cargills and Faccendas, which between them displace indigenous peoples, destroy lower impact and fairer livelihoods, deplete freshwater resources, deforest the ‘Earth’s Lungs’ and produce more emissions a year as a sector than than ExxonMobil, Shell, or BP. Our future consumption of meat and dairy, at much lower levels than is currently the norm, is likely to involve a patchwork food system, in which agro-ecological production co-exists with forestry and nature conservation, and in which ‘surplus’ food is recycled back into the food system in animal feed. But this future needs public investment as surely as we need to be divesting from some of the livestock industry’s worst emitters. 

  1. Supermarkets will find themselves in the spotlight.

When Feedback ranked UK supermarkets on their action on meat and climate in June this year, the results were underwhelming: none scored more than 50% on our scorecard, and all continued to drive meat consumption with promotions and offers. Yet change is in the air, with all UK supermarkets recently committing to a new target to halve the emissions from their products by 2030. With meat, dairy and fish representing around 70% of emissions from the products supermarkets sell, it’s simple maths that supermarkets will have a hard time meeting their new targets without selling a lot more plants and a lot less animal products.

Failure to shift food systems onto a more sustainable pathway, including through dietary change, rules out meeting the 1.5 degree target. The pathway to ambitious methane reductions lies right before our feet – whether governments will help us tread it is yet to be seen. 

Read our longer briefing on methane mitigation through sustainable food systems changes here.

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