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Dramatic changes in diets around the world could help to ensure that global temperatures keep from rising above 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
If the world piled on the veggies and cut back on steaks and hamburgers, the UK-based think tank Chatham House said in a report this week, the world could generate a quarter of the remaining emission reductions needed to keep warming from rising above 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) compared to pre-Industrial Age levels, a threshold at which most scientists fear the worst impacts of climate change would take hold.
"Reducing meat consumption is a real win-win for health and for the climate," Laura Wellesley, one of the report's authors, said in a statement. "As governments look for strategies to close the Paris emissions gap quickly and cheaply, dietary change should be high on the list."
The report is the latest to highlight the contributions the agriculture industry is making to global emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, at a time when meat consumption among a growing middle class in Asia is projected to rise dramatically — 116 percent in China between 2006 and 2050 and 138 percent in India, according to the World Resources Institute.
Once overlooked in favor of fossil fuels like coal and oil, the sector — especially the production of livestock — has come to be recognized as a growing part of the problem and one that has some of the greatest potential for emission cuts.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, emissions from livestock production is estimated at 7.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year, or about 15 percent of global human-induced emissions. Beef and milk production are the leading culprits by a long shot, contributing 41 and 20 percent of the sector's emissions. Pig meat and poultry meat and eggs contribute 9 percent and 8 percent.
The FAO and others said the emissions could be cut in the sector by as much as 30 percent if farmers around the world modernized their farms, improved land use practices, and incorporated the recycling of things like animal waste into their operations.
But increasingly, scientists are saying further cuts will have to come from shoppers who are buying all this chicken, pork, and beef.
The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its latest comprehensive report on the state of global warming that "emissions can be substantially lowered through changes in consumption patterns … and dietary change and reduction in food wastes."
The Chatham House report essentially echoed those recommendations and went further, saying "unless strong demand growth for meat is curtailed, livestock sector emissions will increase to the point where dangerous climate change is unavoidable."
It would also improve people's health, the report found, to cut down on meat consumption. Global per capita meat consumption is already above healthy levels, and double the recommended amount in industrialized countries, it said. Too much red and processed meat is associated with an increased risk of non-communicable diseases, in particular cancer, as found by the World Health Organization.
The FAO's Senior Livestock Officer Carolyn Opio was more cautious about the role diet can play. She said the report needed to consider the challenges of shifting diets in the developing world and also what that would mean to the millions of farmers that depend on livestock to survive.
"While changes in consumption patterns can address some of the sustainability issues associated with the sector, the general consensus is that a more holistic approach is required where interventions are targeted at both supply and demand side," she said. "The report also needs to consider the diversity in consumption between regions and countries; a more balanced picture should be provided where due recognition is given to the millions of poor people in developing regions, particularly Africa and Asia, who still consume very low levels of livestock protein and would need to increase their consumption in order to achieve a certain nutritional status."
So far, the message — much like the issue of curbing population growth — appears to be lost on the nations attending the Paris talks.
Reducing meat consumption does not feature in a single national emissions reduction plan submitted in advance of the Paris meeting, according to the report. Governments, the authors said, are afraid to interfere in lifestyle choices for fear of public backlash — a concern that Chatham's own surveys have shown is largely unfounded.
"Raising awareness about the health and environmental impacts of meat is an important first step, but on its own it will not lead to significant behavior change. Governments must do more to influence diets," Wellesley said.
She added that governments need to take the lead in raising awareness about the climate impacts of excessive meat consumption and offer incentives for consumers to diversify their diets.
While the report didn't call on everyone to give up their burgers and embrace vegetarianism, it concluded more could be done by schools, shops, and government agencies to offer vegetarian options. As an example, it cited IKEA's decision to offer vegetarian alternatives to its popular meatballs.
"The placement of vegetarian and vegan sandwiches or fresh fruit and vegetables at the front of a supermarket or at eye level on canteen shelves — may go a long way to alerting customers to options other than their usual meat- and dairy based choices," the report said.
Follow Michael Casey on Twitter: @Mcasey1