December 7, 2015

Animal Agriculture Is the Missing Climate Change Link at COP21

Juliana Vigorito

Juliana Vigorito

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

paris-climate-talks-200x200On November 30, policymakers, business leaders, and environmental activists converged on Le Bourget, a suburb of Paris, to negotiate the future of global climate policy. This event, Conference of the Parties 21 (known as COP21), is the latest of the annual United Nations Climate Change Conferences. Since 1992, signatory nations to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have strategized ways to contain greenhouse gas emissions. This year’s conference is receiving special attention because the goal is to negotiate a binding agreement on emissions for the first time in two decades. With so many people watching COP21, one area of consideration is glaringly neglected: meat and food animal production.

In preparation for COP21, nations have released individual plans to curb emissions domestically. These plans – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs – are important, since they signal initial willingness to negotiate on different sources of carbon emissions. The 157 INDCs submitted represent 184 nations. (The European Union submitted one on behalf of its 28 members.) These plans vary widely in specificity, length, and level of commitment, but very few mention food, despite growing evidence that food production contributes up to one-third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

INDCs from some of the leading carbon emitters—China, United States, European Union, and Russia—either mention food scarcely or only express concern about future food security. Some developing nations with heavy reliance on agriculture, including Indonesia and Bangladesh, mention plans to mitigate deforestation, a major source of food-related emissions. India, a major emitter where more than half of the population is employed in agriculture, briefly discusses sustainable agriculture initiatives but does not specifically target food animal production. Brazil, a major beef exporter, plans to restore large tracts of pastureland, but does not otherwise mention food production in its INDC.

Beyond having the chance to introduce their climate change targets in writing, political leaders of COP21 nations were given the chance to make short speeches at the opening of the conference. Among the leaders who spoke, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, COP21 President Laurent Fabius, and U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned food briefly. Each of their comments expressed concern that climate change will hinder future food security, but none acknowledged unsustainable food production practices as a driving force behind climate change.

The absence of food production on the COP21 agenda is not for lack of research and activism on the issue. Slow Food, a European coalition, has circulated the “Let’s Not Eat Up Our Planet! Fight Climate Change” appeal, which was signed by Italian environmental minister Gian Luca Galletti. Another online petition begun by the Vegan Society Switzerland to put animal agriculture on the COP21 agenda has garnered more than 10,000 signatures. In some regions, the push for more sustainable meat production is taking hold. COP21 has touted an initiative in four European countries—France, Ireland, Italy, and Spain—called “Live Beef Carbon,” which will reduce livestock emissions through innovative farming systems. While such efforts represent awareness of the issue, they are far from sufficient to make meat production a central focus of the international climate negotiations. The conversation should broaden in line with new UN Sustainable Development Goal #2, which emphasizes food security alongside more sustainable agricultural practices.

On Wednesday, December 9, food animal production and meat consumption will take the stage at COP21. Representatives from the global Meatless Monday campaign and Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future will be joined by advocates from 15 other nations to discuss the importance of reducing meat consumption and food waste. The message from scientific experts is clear: adapting the global food system to rely less on meat is essential to combat climate change.

Follow along on social media using #lessmeatlessheat and #COP21.

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