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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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A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.
"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."
The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.
My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable. #whiteisland pic.twitter.com/QJwWi12Tvt— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
Michael Schade / Twitter
At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.
The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.
Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.
"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."
Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.
Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.
"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.
"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."
The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.
Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.
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