This paper finds that the EU’s climate targets for 2050 for methane and nitrous oxide can be met by a combination of technological improvements in agriculture (found to have a potential to cut emissions by nearly 50% in optimistic scenarios) and through a reduction in beef consumption. The study authors argue that these targets can be met even with a continued high consumption of pork and poultry.
The researchers, from Chalmers University and the Food and Bioscience unit of the Technical Research Institute of Sweden (SP) begin by constructing a baseline scenario which describes changes in the current average diet up to 2050 (based on continued development of the trend of increasing meat consumption at the expense of dairy products and carbohydrate-rich food), as well as five alternative, less GHG-intensive dietary scenarios (Less Meat, Dairy Beef, Vegetarian, Climate Carnivore, and Vegan). Note that the study does not model dietary scenarios that are both lower in GHGs and healthy; none of the alternative diets is perfectly aligned with current nutritional recommendations (they all for example have sugar intakes above recommendations since non-essential items were kept to the same level as in the baseline) and so the study thus takes a solely mitigation-oriented perspective.
The GHG emission intensities in the current food supply systems are estimated and an assessment is made of the potential for reducing the emission intensities in supply through deploying a broad range of technology options. In addition to reduced GHG emissions, the study also estimates land use in food supply.
The paper outlines three routes for achieving mitigation:
- Improved technology within farming sector: In a very positive scenario where new technology is encouraged agricultural emissions would fall by 50%. Support for technological development (and use) as well as a more ambitious climate policy for agriculture would be crucial to make this happen.
- Reduced consumption of beef: Technological advances are not enough to reach the EU climate targets. Dietary change will likely be necessary to reach the goals and the paper argues that a shift from beef to poultry consumption will be needed. With a combination of production and consumption side shifts, it may be possible to reduce emissions by 95%.
- Reduced consumption of cheese and other dairy products: Dairy has more than double the emissions impact as pork and poultry meat. Plant based dairy alternatives such as oat-milk as are indicated as a substitute.
This figure, taken from the paper summarises the main results
The paper also assesses the mitigation potential achievable via waste reduction. It assumes a halving of the inedible or non-preferred current waste levels as an additional variant in all combined technology and diet scenarios. The researchers conclude that the food waste route to reduced emissions is not very effective. There is relatively little waste of the kinds of foods that have the greatest impact on total emissions - as meat and dairy products – and a halving of food waste would not reduce emissions by more than about five percent.
To meet the 2 °C climate target, deep cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be required for carbon dioxide from fossil fuels but, most likely, also for methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture and other sources. However, relatively little is known about the GHG mitigation potential in agriculture, in particular with respect to the combined effects of technological advancements and dietary changes. Here, we estimate the extent to which changes in technology and demand can reduce Swedish food-related GHG emissions necessary for meeting EU climate targets. This analysis is based on a detailed representation of the food and agriculture system, using 30 different food items.
We find that food-related methane and nitrous oxide emissions can be reduced enough to meet the EU 2050 climate targets. Technologically, agriculture can improve in productivity and through implementation of specific mitigation measures. Under optimistic assumptions, these developments could cut current food-related methane and nitrous oxide emissions by nearly 50%. However, also dietary changes will almost certainly be necessary. Large reductions, by 50% or more, in ruminant meat (beef and mutton) consumption are, most likely, unavoidable if the EU targets are to be met. In contrast, continued high per-capita consumption of pork and poultry meat or dairy products might be accommodated within the climate targets. High dairy consumption, however, is only compatible with the targets if there are substantial advances in technology. Reducing food waste plays a minor role for meeting the climate targets, lowering emissions only by an additional 1–3%.
Brungelsson, D., Wirsenius, S., Hadenius, F. Sonesson, U. (2016) How can the EU climate targets be met? A combined analysis of technological and demand-side changes in food and agriculture, Food Policy, Vol 59, doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2015.12.012
This paper is available here open access.
You can find an earlier study from some of these researchers from 2014 here as well as a blog-post by one of the lead authors Stefan Wirsenius that he wrote about the paper for the FCRN 2014 “Why reduced beef, lamb and dairy consumption may be necessary for meeting stringent climate targets”.
For a more positive take on the role of ruminant livestock in a sustainable food system, see this blog (and associated paper) by Elin Röös et al., another paper by Christian Schader et al, and for a South American perspective, see this paper by de Silva et al.
For an overview of differences in sustainability issues associated with ruminant and monogastric production see the FCRN’s 2015 report “Lean, green, mean, obscene… What is efficiency? And is it sustainable?” and for some more imaginative/exploratory scenarios of livestock futures (one dominated by intensive pig and poultry production; one ruminant based; an artificial meat future, and a virtually vegan future) see Gut feelings and possible tomorrows: (where) does animal farming fit?
For other related resources in the FCRN research library see the categories on animal issues, meat, eggs and alternatives, Climate change: mitigation, Consumption and diets as well as keyword categories consumption and production trends, dietary trends, GHG emission trends.