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Plant-based food can help save the world, says IPCC

The UN body's third report says changes to the way we eat are vital to achieve "immediate and deep emissions reductions"

Posted : 8 April 2022

The third instalment of a blockbuster UN environmental report has a positive message to share – we can cut our greenhouse gas emissions and stop the worst effects of climate change – but we are running out of time to do so. Emissions must peak by 2025. As its authors say: “The next few years are critical.”

While action is being taken to curb the damaging effect that human activity is having on the planet, the IPCC report, based on the findings of thousands of scientists internationally, says: “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5C is beyond reach.”

Among the sectors singled out for urgent action is meat and dairy. As the IPCC has previously made clear, efforts to halt and reverse climate change will fail unless we radically change the way we eat, farm and use land.

Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change is the third part of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, which will be completed this year, and it is clear about the environmental benefits of plant-based food: “Diets high in plant protein and low in meat and dairy are associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions.” They add that there is “robust evidence” and “high agreement” that meat from livestock “shows the highest greenhouse gas intensity”.

A shift to greener diets and a decrease in consumption of meat and dairy “could lead to substantial decreases in GHG emissions”, they say, with benefits including freeing up more land and replenishing nutrients, as well as improving health and saving lives.

“Demand for plant-based proteins is increasing,” they note, encouraging farmers to see the potential in growing crops for humans rather than cattle. They add: “A diverse range of novel food products and production systems are emerging that are proposed to reduce GHG emissions from food production, mainly by replacing conventional animal-source food with alternative protein sources.”

While they point out most meat alternatives are made from soy – an environmental enemy when it comes to cattle feed – the market share of 30 plant proteins is growing rapidly, including “pulses, cereals, soya, algae and other ingredients mainly used to imitate the 31 taste, texture and nutritional profiles of animal-source food”.

While it is “almost inevitable” the golden 1.5C threshold for global heating – to which the world reiterated its commitment at the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow, will be breached, rapid changes can bring the temperature back down. Emissions will need to peak before 2025, however, and drop by 43 per cent by 2030. Methane emissions – which are linked inextricably to livestock and dairy farming – need to be cut by a third.

The first part of the report, published in August, covered the science behind climate change, and the second its impacts. In 2014, the IPCC Synthesis report warned that the “severe, widespread and irreversible impacts” of climate change had increased the risk of extreme weather and threats to food security.

Hoesung Lee, the IPCC chairman, said: “We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming. I am encouraged by climate action being taken in many countries. There are policies, regulations and market instruments that are proving effective. If these are scaled up and applied more widely and equitably, they can support deep emissions reductions and stimulate innovation.”

Among the positives, the IPCC lists the decrease in the costs of greener energy and storage, including wind, solar and batteries, and an increase in political will to legislate to protect the natural world. If we do more, though – and faster – greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by as much as 70 per cent by 2050.

Read the report

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