Reducing Meat and Dairy a ‘Win-Win’ for the Climate and Your Waistline
Consumption of meat and dairy products in many countries has risen beyond healthy levels, the report says and emissions from rearing livestock mean growing meat demand will make it harder to keep global temperature rise below 2C.
Political leaders are “afraid of telling people what to eat,” says the authors, but the findings suggest the public may be less averse to changing their diets than governments fear.
As you can see in the chart below, consumption of meat and dairy products generally increases as a country’s national income rises. While this growth flattens off as earnings climb further, meat eating in many developed countries has plateaued at excessive levels, the report says.
The dotted line shows a healthy level of meat in our diets. On average, in Europe we eat around twice as much as we should, while in the U.S. it’s three times.
This is bad for our waistlines and the climate, the report says.
Our appetite for meat is a major driver of climate change, says lead author Laura Wellesley, a research associate at Chatham House. She told a press conference, "Globally, the livestock sector accounts for 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions—that’s equivalent to all exhaust emissions from every vehicle on the planet."
Rearing livestock produces emissions directly from animals, from digestion and manure and from transporting animals and producing their feed. Greenhouse gases are also released when forests are cleared to make way for pasture or for cropland in order to grow animal feed.
Global demand for meat is expected to increase by 76 percent by the middle of this century as both population and incomes rise, Wellesley says, which means emissions are set to rise as well.
Research last year by Chatham House found that without keeping a lid on rising meat and dairy consumption, keeping global temperature rise to 2C above pre-industrial levels was “off the table.” The new report asks how to go about bringing global diets in line with climate emissions targets.
Cycle of Inertia
The issue of how to address meat and dairy consumption has been “trapped in a cycle of inertia,” the report says. Governments have shied away from promoting sustainable diets in fear of a backlash from the public and food industry, while the lack of action means public awareness of the climate impact of meat and dairy is low.
The researchers conducted discussion groups with members of the public in Brazil, China, the U.S. and the UK to explore attitudes to meat and dairy consumption.
The results showed that the public wanted guidance from the government on how much meat they should eat, with participants of the focus groups saying they were unlikely to change their eating habits without it. The report concludes, "Government inaction signals to [the general public] that the issue is unimportant or undeserving of concern."
The findings also suggest that the public may be less reluctant to being asked to cut their meat intake than governments fear. Wellesley explains, "The assumption that interventions like this are too politically sensitive and too practically difficult to implement is unjustified. Our focus groups pointed to a public that expect governments to lead, that expect governments to take action on issues that are in the public interest."
This action could include “nudges” towards more sustainable food choices by improving awareness, food labeling and availability of alternative options. But the most effective method of changing eating behavior is likely to be taxation, the findings suggest.
The Chatham House report doesn’t look into possible tax levels, but research published in the British Medical Journal in 2013 found that taxing the carbon emissions from beef production at £2.72 (USD$4.10) per ton of CO2eq for every 100g of beef would result in a £1.76 (USD$2.65) increase per kilo. This in turn could lead to a 14 percent reduction in consumption.
Although there would be some initial opposition to adding taxes to meat and dairy, public acceptance would come in the long-term, Wellesley says, "Our research also indicates that any backlash to unpopular policies would likely be short-lived."
The public is more likely to accept a tax if they can see the revenues are being redistributed towards other foods, the researchers add.
An Opportunity, Not an Impossibility
So, how much of a difference to global emissions could healthier diets make? Wellesley explains, "A global shift to healthy diets, which for most would mean a reduction of meat consumption—a significant reduction in meat consumption—could bring a quarter of the emissions reductions needed [by 2050] to bring us back online for the 2C target."
You can see this in the chart from the report below. The dark blue line is the future emissions path based on the existing national pledges for cutting greenhouse gases emissions, while the pale blue line shows the reduction if the world shifted to the healthy levels of meat and dairy consumption. The grey line shows the path necessary for 2C.
But you needn’t rush out to stock up on sausages before they disappear from supermarket shelves, says Wellesley, "We’re not in any way advising or advocating for global vegetarianism. It doesn’t need that. You can see a massive change and huge emissions reductions from just converging around healthy levels and moderating our intake."
For example, a study published in Nature Climate Change last year suggested that a global diet of no more than 24g of red meat a day and no more than 85g of chicken, would save six billion tons of CO2e by 2050. For reference, the beef burger in a standard McDonalds hamburger weighs in at 33g.
Cutting back on meat and dairy has a dual benefit of improving global health as well as helping to limit climate change. This makes a “compelling case” for governments to encourage the public to shift their diets, Wellesley concludes, "The key message here is that governments should see dietary change not as impossibility, but as an opportunity."
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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