Meat Has Long Been Missing From Climate Commitments — But COP28 Could Be a Turning Point

The push to address food systems at climate talks in Dubai is long overdue.

Cattle in a crowded feedlot

Reported Climate Policy

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The livestock industry is a key contributor to climate change. The reasons are clear, climate scientists say. Raising cattle and lamb requires huge amounts of land, water and crops. Plus, methane-belching cows and other ruminant animals emit vast amounts of greenhouse gasses. Yet to date, meat has mostly been missing from the world’s most significant climate conference. But this year at COP28, that may finally change.

The food system is responsible for over a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and the leading driver of food-related climate pollution is livestock. Meat and dairy farming fuel around 14 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, depending on the study.

These emissions arise at all stages of livestock production, from deforestation caused by the clearing of land for pasture, to the production of feed, manure management and the processing and transportation of final products. Most worryingly, a large share of livestock’s global warming footprint comes from methane, a potent greenhouse gas belched out by a billion cows and as many sheep worldwide. Methane is shorter-lived than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but it’s far more potent and damaging, as much as 80 times more effective at trapping heat. Therefore, methane emissions are expected to play a significant role in global warming by the turn of the century.

Yet despite the fact that meat is one of the most greenhouse gas-intensive foods we currently produce, it has largely flown under the radar of climate policymaking. Most countries have been reluctant to set targets to curb emissions from the food sector, focusing so far on efforts to decarbonize energy or transportation. But COP28, the global climate conference taking place in Dubai from December 1-12, has witnessed a push to put healthy diets on the menu — and the livestock industry under more scrutiny.

Healthy Diets Have Been Missing From Past Climate Action Plans

So far, food-related emissions have taken a backseat in nationally determined contributions, also called NDCs, the voluntary commitments made by countries to curb their greenhouse gas emissions.

NDCs are essentially climate roadmaps designed by governments to detail the actions they will take to meet their emissions reductions targets under the 2015 Paris Agreement. NDCs are updated every five years and cover multiple economic sectors, like energy, transportation or agriculture.

But since 2015, these climate plans have rarely included any reference to reducing meat production, let alone consumption, or promoting healthy diets. Analyzing the NDCs of G20 members in 2021 — which gather the wealthiest nations on Earth, accounting for around 85 percent of the world’s GDP and two thirds of the global population — environmental journalist Mike Shanahan found that none of them had anything to say on meat.

Little has changed since. “We know that agriculture, forestry and land use (AFOLU) often contribute the majority of emissions. And yet national plans to tackle climate change tend to focus too little on food systems and nutrition links specifically,” Oliver Camp, Environment and Food Systems Advocacy Lead at Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition” (GAIN), told Sentient Media. “Our recent analysis showed that only 2 percent of NDCs offer tangible plans to integrate nutrition, and only 16 percent of [national adaptation plans].”

This glaring gap largely stems from the polarized nature of the debate around meat, and the influence of the meat and dairy lobbies. “It seems like agriculture is an afterthought, and I think part of it has got to do with the fact that people see food as something you don’t mess with. The other element is the power of lobbies,” Nusa Urbancic, the CEO of Changing Markets Foundation, told Sentient Media. “It’s a sector that is hugely subsidized, both in Europe and in the US (…) It is really a difficult sector to change, because there’s such deep entrenchment of farm lobbies.”

Representatives from the livestock industry are aware that pressure is growing to promote healthy diets, and they want to be part of the conversation. Panel discussions on “how animal-sourced food nourish the world” and roundtables on “sustainable beef” have sprouted on the sidelines of the conference, sponsored by big meat and dairy actors like the International Dairy Federation, the Interamerican Institute for Cooperative Agriculture (IICA), or Meat and Livestock Australia.

“If we’re not at the table, then we are on the menu,” president of the World Farmers Organization Arnold Puech d’Alissac said on December 6 at a panel discussion that bore the title “Enhancing Farmers Contributions to National Adaptation Plans (NAPs)/NDCs.”

A Call to Action at COP28

After eight years of inertia, the discussion around the food sector’s climate responsibility is finally inching forward at COP28, where the UAE-led presidency has been trying hard to put healthy diets on the menu.

On December 1st, over 130 countries endorsed the UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action, the first such declaration tying together the food sector and climate goals. Signatories include the U.S., Canada and most EU members, as well as major meat- and dairy-producing countries like New Zealand, Brazil and Australia.

These countries have committed to reducing emissions from agriculture and food systems, promised to integrate these sectors into their voluntary commitments and agreed to review their progress at the next COP. Many then signed on the following day to the UAE Declaration on Climate and Health, which expressly mentions “shifts to sustainable healthy diets” as key to reaching climate targets.

This flurry of declarations may be part of a strategy to shift attention away from the energy sector, where the UAE faces intense criticism as an oil-producing state. But whatever drives this policy shift, it’s music to the ears of those who’ve been working for years on reconnecting climate and food policy.

“It was really exciting to see that over 130 countries recognize that we can’t meet the goals of the Paris Agreement without addressing food systems and agriculture, and also that these countries are now committing to integrate food systems in their climate planning NDCs. I think that is huge,” Amelia Linn, director of global policy at Mercy for Animals, told Sentient Media. “Although we are concerned that the declaration also includes the promotion of blue foods,” Linn added, referring to the push to promote seafood as a sustainable alternative to meat, treating it “as a kind of one-size-fits-all solution.”

Camp also welcomed the two declarations, calling them “the strongest political commitment we have ever seen to integrating food systems, climate, nutrition and health,”: “This gives a global political platform, so now the next step is to translate this into country-level action.”

Challenges Ahead for Implementation

In the remaining days of COP, all eyes will be on the negotiation rooms, where an essential step of the Paris Agreement process is underway: the Global Stocktake (GST). The GST is essentially the point in time when parties to the Paris Agreement are meant to assess their collective progress towards meeting global climate goals.

“Another piece of the Global Stocktake is that parties are meant to be identifying gaps so that they can course-correct and increase ambitions in their next NDCs, which they will be working on next year,” Linn added. “What we have been saying is really crucial is that ‘food systems’ is identified as a critical gap in climate action, and that food systems are addressed in their entirety.”

Inversely, if the GST outcome fails to even mention food systems, then the COP process will have missed a rare opportunity to get parties to include food-related emissions in their NDCs — until the next stocktake in 2028.

Some countries have been pushing harder than others to include language on food systems in the GST, including New Zealand, Latin American and Caribbean countries, Canada and the European Union, according to observer organizations.

But at this stage, no one can tell what will end up in the final outcome. The text needs to be endorsed by all 195 parties to the Paris Agreement, all of which have different priorities and concerns when it comes to agriculture, food systems and healthy diets.

Debate to Watch: Sustainable Solutions

“One area of contention will likely be what parts of the food system are addressed — some countries will likely want any language to focus on agriculture, while others will want consumption patterns (diets and food waste) to be included also,” Sebastian Osborn, Global Policy Manager at Mercy For Animals, told Sentient Media. “Then, there will likely be contentions around how food is addressed.”

Another source of friction: a debate is currently playing out intensely at various COP side events, between proponents of technological interventions to make meat more “sustainable” or less “emissions intensive,” and those who focus on sustainable production practices, diet change and plant-based diets. It’s a debate that has long played out among food system advocates and observers, but it’s only just begun in Dubai.

Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect that Oliver Camp is an advocate with Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition” (GAIN) not Nature Positive Actions for Healthy Diets.

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