Cut out red meat to pause climate for 25 years and profoundly benefit 7 SDGs by Hit Pause on Climate
Eliminating grazed animal consumption will buy 25 years to fix emissions and will profoundly benefit 7 SDGs and 5 Planetary Boundaries
Set aside your disbelief for a moment and imagine a world where red meat was rarely eaten, a historical or subsistence curiosity.
Grazed animals are the greatest source of methane emissions and drive a large part of the world's deforestation (1).
But cutting emissions is just the start - radically reducing global ruminant production would slow global warming due to the short (10 year) life of methane, buying about 25 years more time to reduce other emissions (2).
And that's not all - imagine you now control a third of the world's land, and could return it to forests or grasslands instead of grazing animals. This is a game-changer, drawing down over 23Gt of CO2-e/year, equivalent to over half global emissions (3).
Then we come to the Sustainable Development Goals. Drastically reducing ruminants will strongly support the goals of: Zero Hunger (substituting more efficient food sources); Good Health and Well-Being (red meat is a known carcinogen), Clean Water and Sanitation (regenerated water catchments improve water quality and guard against flooding), Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure (producing innovative alternative protein foods), Responsible Consumption and Production (beef is the most wasteful food on earth, requiring approximately 40kg of plant protein/nitrogen to produce 1kg of meat protein), Climate Action (described above), Life on Land (priotising conservation and revegetation over grazing is the most effective means we have of slowing biodiversity loss (4)).
Indeed, dramatically reducing red meat through a process of contraction and convergence akin to that pursued internationally for greenhouse emissions generally will greatly help the world stay within the planetary boundaries of biosphere integrity, land-system change, climate change and biogeochemical flows.
In fact, this future is already here for millions of people, with one in 12 of us voluntarily not eating any meat, and more choosing not to consume red meat.
Many past CoLab proposals address pieces of this puzzle. Here we have identifies some past winning proposals that are most relevant.
Team members have been part of two previous proposals with similar themes: The Planet Or Your Plate: mitigate climate change by going meatless; and Cool Food - empowering climate friendly food choices on a daily basis.
And two proposals by others along similar lines are: Reducing Footprints by Reducing Animal Consumption; Reduce consumption & GHG emissions through dietary and other changes
Multi-level actions, beginning with grass roots community engagement. There are many proposals that are relevant, for example :ECOS--Education, Communication and Outreach Stakeholders--a new UNFCCC C...; Platform for Community Engagement around Achieving Carbon Neutrality; Education for Sustainable Lifestyle (ESL): Connecting Schools with the C...
Multi-level government/UN level actions: Local Government Implementation of The Sustainable Development Goals; Potential of private-government partnership for GHG emission reduction; Intergovernmental panel to set the Earth's thermostat; KENYA: 48 Governments 1 Country Sustainable Development Goals Forum
And the system-wide level (framing, socio-technical landscapes and cultural regimes): Making educational institutes an institution for changing attitudes of p...; Changing attitudes towards Climate Change in Pakistan; Enhancing youth engagement in climate policy; Activating people through discovery, engagement & awareness; Global Policy Change on agriculture; Building Grassroots Voice in to Climate Change Policy; Insurance policy: Revenue-neutral carbon tax with global temperature ind...; RewirePlus: Behaviour change and value change for the emerging green eco...; Collabotarive Local Actions for Climatechange Education - CLACE; The Antioquia Community Ecosystems Infrastructure REDD + Project in Colo...
What actions do you propose?
Ruminant production is the greatest human-caused methane emission source, a major cause of deforestation, and takes up almost a third of the earth’s surface for grazing. This has been seen by many as a ‘wicked problem’ because red meat has been promoted and accepted as a desirable and even necessary part of the human diet.
This ambitious proposal works on multiple levels to establish lasting policy, industry and social change using known approaches but with a rather bold scope.
If successful, this global pivot to red meat alternatives would greatly benefit seven Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Health, Water, Consumption, Climate and Forests. It is in fact also necessary for averting our perilous position on the Planetary Boundaries of biodiversity loss, climate, deforestation and nitrogen pollution.
This is a breakthrough proposal, requiring radical re-thinking and action on many fronts.
Precedents for radical change do exist, however, such as when we accept far greater hardships for a war effort or natural disaster. This section lays out actions for a multi-level climate policy innovation approach which will have a far greater probability for success.
How do previous proposals fit together
All the above linked proposals recognise the need to curtail red meat consumption, in order to meet climate targets. Our original proposal identified the transformational power of limiting methane for a fast climate benefit and our most recent proposal (Cool Food) looked at influencing consumers to make more informed choices. Other proposals focus on grass roots community action and NGO-led initiatives such as Meatless Monday, fuelled by education campaigns, particularly aimed at students.
What is missing from these previous proposals, which is addressed here, is a way to develop a cohesive and comprehensive plan for multi-level actions that work together to overcome the considerable political and cultural inertia as well as industry resistance involving food and allow positive behavioural change.
The Multi Level Perspective (5) emphasises that positive changes do not occur in a vacuum but in the context of often resistant incumbent approaches. Successful , up-scaled change requires coordinated action at the levels of experimental niches (eg a local project where valuable co-benefits are planned and realised ), sociotechnical landscapes (eg national policies), and contestable but powerful regimes (eg the common global cultural association of red meat consumption with wealth and good health).
Sociotechnical landscapes (government policy)
National policy action Here we have an excellent precedent, with China launching the "5 to do today" campaign in 2016 to reduce meat consumption by 50%. Aimed principally at public health and climate, the Less Meat Less Heat initiative enlisted the help of Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, supported by Wild Aid. The campaign involved online ads, videos, billboards and advertising featuring celebrities to encourage its citizens to eat less meat.
Wild Aid has calculated that by achieving the meat reduction target, China will cut global agricultural emissions by 22%. As we know, much of the meat-related emissions are methane, which has a 10 year lifetime, and the 22% is calculated on conventional 100 year accounting, so cutting methane we will be felt over the coming 20 years as though it were a cut of more than 60% in emissions.
The governments of Denmark, Germany and the UK have also taken steps (albeit small) towards reduced meat consumption, which will be carefully analysed by our project to identify different approaches and issues.
Public health benefits add compelling arguments that governments support this initiative. In a study of diverse dietary interventions, for example, Springmann et al. (2016) found that reducing red meat consumption had the most positive impact on health, responsible for up to 82% of avoidable deaths (6).
UN policy and technical actions There are several technical actions which the IPCC and UNFCCC could be encouraged to implement - and which high ambition leaders can adopt - to add much-needed simplification and transparency to greenhouse accounting related to agriculture and ruminant production.
These actions would expose both the full impact and opportunities of ruminant emissions reduction, large scale dietary changes and pre-emptive adaptation and transition among supply chains, businesses and communities. These ‘technical actions’ are therefore fundamental to enabling parties and subnationals to accurately assess cost benefits and tradeoffs in reducing emissions in ruminant production, and as such need to be core to - and at the same time a subject of - the project. These actions are:
Include near term timelines: In order to break the self-limiting framing imposed by 100 year accounting, and to re-frame the climate challenge in a new positive light, the IPCC could publish inventories with both 20 year and 100 year accounting. Use of GWP20 would provide policymakers with a clear picture of the relative contribution to warming of emissions of different gases over coming decades, as the world approaches the 2°C threshold. It would also ensure that ‘carbon neutral’ trajectories and targets which are calculated based on GWP20, and which therefore avoid near term as well as long term warming, could be given prioritised funding and prominence.
Remove net LULUCF accounting and publish true sector accounts: Current 'net' accounting hides true deforestation emissions, suggesting strongly that deforestation be separated from 'land use' emissions and attributed to the activity responsible - in this case ranching.
Include uncounted emissions: As an Australian study discovered (7), uncounted carbon monoxide and subsequent tropospheric ozone significantly skew the results of even sophisticated and best practice GHG accounting. So it is worth noting that some countries are now including ‘uncounted emissions, and are leading on ambition in doing so.
Contestable regimes (overcoming cultural and industry barriers)
Action on industry - Learning from the energy sector’s transition While the energy sector faces ongoing issues transitioning away from fossil fuels, there have been some major gains made on both the supply and demand side. This project will identify key lessons to date from efforts to decarbonise the energy sector and explore their applicability to helping mitigate emissions from the red meat sector. This includes: the use of fossil fuel divestment tactics, which may be transferable to major red meat companies and even whole supply chains; emphasising the transition risk that investors such as banks face when supporting high emissions industries; and academic analysis of climate change mitigation through the lens of a sociotechnical sustainability theory.
A focus on supply chains and multinationals may be a useful starting point because these will be the largest source of pushback and also the largest target for divestment - starting as now with the links to deforestation and failing to avoid biodiversity and habitat losses, and then expanding on the basis of loss of social license based on ongoing failure to curtail expansion and growing greenhouse gas impacts.
Grass roots actions Many NGOs are already operating in this space. Identifying one or more NGOs with common goals and elping them to understand the full impact of this proposal then gaining their help to promote its benefits would be a fast way to launch our campaign and create a groundswell of support and strong community engagement.
Celebrity-led public education campaigns would provide key support for community influencing and engagement. The Chinese Less Meat Less Heat initiative enlisted the help of Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, supported by Wild Aid. The campaign involved online ads, videos, billboards and advertising featuring celebrities to encourage its citizens to eat less meat.
Breaking stereotypes Interestingly, having Arnold Schwarzenegger say "If someone tells you you need meat to be strong - don't listen to them" is a strong message to males that eating meat is manly, a persistent stereotype.
Innovative niches (demonstration projects)
Many primary producers are working towards carbon neutral production, and lessons learned from these will be critical for a just transition while articulating co-benefits and alternatives. This project will explore alternatives for farmers and ranchers to understand the role of livestock in their businesses, livelihoods and landscapes and look to see what could replace this.
Since this is a global project, we need to treat separately the role of livestock for small scale, subsistence level producers, as this is dramatically different to that of large scale commercial ranchers. In the former, a few livestock can be crucial for a family (e.g. for milk, insurance). There is also the issue that for a proportion of the malnourished global population, a small amount of meat consumption has important welfare benefits.
The purpose of these projects will be to demonstrate Contraction and Convergence between populations - i.e. overall reduction and reduction in inequality.
Carbon markets and biosequestration will clearly play a key role in a changed mix of land use.
Putting it all together
These actions together form a bold, comprehensive plan for multi-level actions that work together for positive industry, governance and behavioural change, leading to dramatic climate benefits and SDG benefits. Although rather breath-taking in scope, this project could have a profoundly beneficial impact on the future of mankind.
A large part of this project will be evaluation of results at each of the multiple levels, coordination and liaison with the many agencies and actors. We see a day when for example a peak body such as the World Future Council states policies that treat red meat as they do 100% renewable energy.
And when a community emerges from the process, the attitude will be "How are you still eating beef? - No-one eats that anymore!"
Strategies for each country
Partnering with a local NGO to define country-specific strategies for cultures, issues, obstacles and actions are critical to success. An audit of each country on actions to reduce red meat consumption at the landscape and regime scale of Multi-Level Perspective would yield synergies and potential connections and learnings between them to scale their effects up and out.
Parties to the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement signatories are beginning to articulate diet-related targets in NDC’s. Officials as well as leading communities within these parties would be suitable actors for both the research and implementation plan design stages of this proposal.
Cities are at the cutting edge on renewable energy and energy efficiency, for example through professional association accreditation style bodies such as the Green Building Council, policy bodies such as The World Future Council and through processes such as power purchase agreements. There is every reason to think that cities will also lead on eliminating red meat from diets as well. Grocery supply chains that are aligning their marketing with city emissions reduction goals already exist and are popular, enjoying strong and growing social license and community support.
Like cities, businesses are already leading on renewable energy and it is reasonable to expect that as soon as a productive opportunity to do so is apparent, they can and will also lead in the area of diet emissions reduction as well. Already institutions with large red meat-related GHG footprints are on trajectories to reduce. Encouraging red meat businesses to invest in meat alternatives is one strategy where this trend has already started.
Who will take these actions and which types of actors are involved?
The proposal is for a combined action research and implementation plan design project. As such, actors and actions vary slightly with each part of the project.
The precise target of the implementation plan actions is TBA, as it is contingent on the results of the research. However, among possible candidates could be communities and mayors of ‘high ambition’ ‘zero emissions’ subnational and some national precincts (parties). In addition candidate actors may include participants in the 5-year combined institutional investors platform known as Climate Action 100+ project , and in the We Mean Business coalition.
Initially, these parties and functions will be required:
Country partner NGOs (many countries, few NGOs)
Education, influence & marketing team (part of Coordinating NGO)
UN influence team
Government influence teams (with country partner NGOs)
Industry team - land use
Industry team - innovative businesses
Where will these actions be taken and how could they scale?
We cannot preempt the research results however, if the energy transition is a guide or analogy, and the crux of our proposal is that it is analogous, then we can envision that through widespread information about the true cost benefits inherent in quickly addressing agriculture emissions reduction the ultimate owners of billions and then trillions in agriculture investments will apply decisive pressure for a switch from producing and processing red meat to building alternative processing plant, and to funding paddock and farm conversions - in some case expansions, in others remediations.
We can envision that - at scale - entire multi-billion dollar global red meat supply chains - from pizza toppings to dog food to hamburger and taco fillings - announce plans to transition to a range of nutritious alternatives, for example plant-based ‘meat’. Grain feed corporations announce their intention to transition to convert their grain into higher value food, and to fund the conversion of excess wheat fields to conservation or high value agroforestry. Large scale ranchers and ‘pastoralists’ might still graze … but not for commercial red meat production, rather as a ‘transition technology’ to full scale negative emissions land regeneration.
On the research side of the proposal, scaling up aspects of the research effort itself is an important idea that would multiply the success of implementation. We consider that in choosing a research and engagement platform with scaling in mind it will be worth while collaborating on the research platform - as well as the research questions - with investment fund managers. This would be to ascertain what research would also be useful to the finance sector and so that we can guage the usefulness of global investment information platforms as tools in the implementation and transformation (for example the new Resilience Intel finance aggregator tool https://www.resilienceintel.org/ ).
In addition, specify the countries where these actions will be taken.
What impact will these actions have on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and/or adapting to climate change?
Radically reducing global ruminant production would slow global warming due to the short (10 year) life of methane, buying about 25 years more time to reduce other emissions (2).
Ceasing expansion or maintenance of grazing lands will remove the need for ongoing deforestation (approx. 70% of deforestation is for grazing) and remove the need for pasture maintenance fires (by far the leading cause of open fire).
Regenerating grazing lands to their original vegetation will draw down over 23Gt of CO2-e/year, equivalent to over half global emissions (3). This has been identified as the lowest cost climate mitigation option (4).
What are the most innovative aspects and main strengths of this approach?
This project aims to tap into existing high-profile publicly evident ‘high ambition’ on climate action that has been very strongly and publicly associated with the energy transition. It taps into Multi Level Innovation methods that give a high probability of sustaining lasting change.
Partnering with existing NGOs will enable a rapid project start and better understanding of country and multi level issues.
As mentioned in the Summary, this project will substantially benefit the SDGs of: Zero Hunger; Good Health and Well-Being Clean Water and Sanitation, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, Responsible Consumption and Production , Climate Action, Life on Land (the most effective means we have of slowing biodiversity loss (4)).
Indeed, dramatically reducing red meat through a process of contraction and convergence as described here will greatly help the world stay within the planetary boundaries of biosphere integrity, land-system change, climate change and biogeochemical flows.
What are the proposal’s projected costs?
1. Setup - 6 months - forming Coordinating NGO, employing key fundraising, partnering, marketing & lobbying staff - $350,000
2. Partnering - 12 months - negotiating & formalising contracts & working relationships with country partner NGOs - $1,500,000
3. Country reports - 6 months (in parallel with 2.) - identifying actions/strategies for each country - $800,000.
4. Education, influence & marketing team - 12 months - carry out campaign in one or two chosen countries - $2,000,000
5. UN & Govt Influence teams - 12 months (can start after 2.) - establish country/organisation links and strategies, and implement - $300,000
6. Review of operations/report on next stage - 2 years from inception - $150,000
Total over 3 years $5,100,000 USD.
About the Authors
Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop worked as a Principal Scientist with Queensland Government Natural Resources, monitoring broadscale deforestation. He co-authored the Beyond Zero Emissions’ Land Use Plan, and volunteers with NGO World Preservation Foundation the Zero Emissions Byron project.
Assoc. Prof. Lauren Rickards is a co-leader of the Climate Change and Resilience research program of the Centre for Urban Research, and Senior Lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, at RMIT.
Jodie Green has a background in research biochemistry, science education and climate solutions advocacy with Beyond Zero Emissions. Australia.
(1) Steinfeld, H. et al. Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options. (2006).
(2) Bryngelsson, D., Hedenus, F., Johansson, D. J. A., Azar, C., & Wirsenius, S. (2017). How Do Dietary Choices Influence the Energy-System Cost of Stabilizing the Climate? Energies, 10(2), 182.https://doi.org/10.3390/en10020182
(3) Griscom, B. W. et al. Natural climate solutions. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 201710465 (2017). doi:10.1073/pnas.1710465114
(4) NEAA. Rethinking Global Biodiversity Strategies: Exploring structural change in production and consumption to reduce biodiversity loss. (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, 2010).
(5) Geels, F. W. and Schot, J. 2007. Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways. Research Policy, 36 (3): 399-417.
(6) Springmann, M., Godfray, H. C. J., Rayner, M., & Scarborough, P. (2016). Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences113(15),4146–4151.https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1523119113
(7) Wedderburn-Bisshop, G., Longmire, A. & Rickards, L. A. Neglected Transformational Responses: Implications of Excluding Short Lived Emissions and Near Term Projections in Greenhouse Gas Accounting. Int. J. Clim. Change Impacts Responses 7, 11–27 (2015).
(8) Stoll-Kleemann, S., & Schmidt, U. J. (2017). Reducing meat consumption in developed and transition countries to counter climate change and biodiversity loss: a review of influence factors. Regional Environmental Change, 17(5), 1261–1277.https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-016-1057-5