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Climate targets depend on a plant-based diet

Meat eating and global food systems will drive the world towards disaster even if the world stops using fossil fuels, says an Oxford study

Posted : 13 November 2020

The biggest impact we can have in dealing with the climate emergency is right before us – on our plates, in fact. A new study says that if we continue with our meat-eating ways, it will be impossible to keep global heating to the lowest safe limit. In short, time is short, and we need to change the way we eat. Now.

Even if harmful greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels were stopped immediately, according to researchers at Oxford University, temperatures would still rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – the most optimistic target envisaged by the Paris climate accord – without a shift to a more plant-based diet.

It means the almost 200 countries that have signed the historic agreement – as well as the US, which, all being well with its democratic institutions, will rejoin early in the new year – will have to factor meat-eating into their legally binding emissions-reducing plans. The UK, which has pledged an 80 per cent cut in harmful greenhouse gases by 2050, has already been warned by its own environmental watchdog that meat eating must be tackled.

The study, published in the journal Science, modelled the global impact, over the next 30 years, of five different strategies to reduce emissions from food production. The first – and by far the most effective – is to adopt a “plant-rich diet”, high in fruit, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains. This alone would give us a 50 per cent chance of staying under 1.5C, researchers found, provided all other emissions halted immediately.

While the other strategies – not eating more calories than we need; using tech to grow more crops; cutting food waste in half, and switching to high-efficiency agriculture – would have nowhere near the same impact individually, all five together would achieve the best possible climate outcome.

“Without changing food systems, we’ll likely miss the 1.5C target in 30 to 45 years and the 2C target within 100, even if we immediately stop all other sources of emissions,” said Dr Michael Clark, the report’s lead author, who researches the environmental impact of food. “No single change is adequate. If we are serious about meeting the 1.5C target, we’re at the point that we need to do everything possible.

“Time is of the essence,” he added. “The longer the wait, the more drastic and severe the changes need to be. We need to start implementing policy now. Ideally we would have done this 10 years ago.”

Read the report

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