Having all but the poorest countries on Earth achieve “peak meat” consumption by 2030 will be critical in the fight to keep global temperatures from rising beyond the relative safety of the Paris targets, say 50 scientists in a letter to The Lancet Planetary Health Journal.
The scientists “called on governments to identify the largest emissions sources or land-occupiers in the livestock sector and set reduction targets,” reports CNN, warning that should livestock and associated emissions continue on their present trajectory, they will account for nearly 50% of the available carbon budget by 2030.
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Alert to the scientific consensus that total emissions must not rise above 420 billion tonnes CO2 before 2100 to have a 66% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C, the authors urge the agricultural sector to “diversify food production” away from emissions-heavy meat and dairy, and towards low-emission pulses, grains, nuts, and seeds.
The letter also notes that “approximately 720 billion tonnes of CO2 must be removed from the atmosphere” to adhere to the 1.5°C target, and that “reestablishing vegetation is viewed as the best large-scale option” for CO2 removal. On that basis, “when grazing land is not required or is unsuitable for horticulture or arable production, it should, where possible, be repurposed by restoring native vegetation such as forest.”
They add that the task of returning farmland to its natural state “must begin immediately to be effective within the required time scale of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.”
The authors also “warned that high- and middle-income countries should not outsource livestock production to other countries, but instead reduce demand for livestock products in order to meet the terms of the Paris climate change agreement,” CNN says.
But Stuart Roberts, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales, cautioned the big-picture numbers mask important differences among regions and countries. “To say that cutting livestock numbers everywhere is the most efficient way of reducing emissions massively overgeneralizes a situation that differs significantly across the world,” he told CNN, “and can hinder the countries that are practicing sustainable farming methods and have an ambition to do more.”
Lead author Helen Harwatt, an environmental social scientist at Harvard Law School, stressed that even if the livestock sector takes on the challenge, it can’t be the only one. “Every industry needs to change deeply and rapidly,” she said. “We’re beyond the point of it being a niche agenda.”