The role of changing dietary habits in mitigating global warming
When we think of tools to achieve climate goals such as limiting the average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above that of the pre-industrial age, most of us visualize wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars. Even the climate policy models currently in use, the so-called Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs), which aim to borrow and combine insights from climate science, engineering, and economics to assess how industrial and agricultural processes can be modified to best address global warming, end up considering mostly the technological aspect.
The Sustainable Energy and Food Transitions (STEADFAST) project of the CIVICA Research alliance, aims instead to investigate the role that our behaviors can play, in terms of reducing energy demand and changing eating habits. The consumption of animal protein has, in fact, a disruptive impact on the emission of greenhouse gases, one not well understood by the public. According to estimates recently published in Nature Food, the food system is responsible for one third of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to humans.
Aleh Cherp (Central European University) is studying changes in individual energy demand. Valentina Bosetti (Bocconi University) and Silvia Pianta (European University Institute), in joint with Elina Brutschin (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis—IIASA), are investigating another aspect, the possibility of refining IAMs to include more reliable estimates of trends in meat and animal protein consumption. "In most cases," Dr. Pianta says, "meat consumption is modeled in IAMs as a function of economic development and prices, in a purely economic logic. Psychology and other social sciences, however, suggest that other socio-cultural variables are at play: social norms, religious affiliation and increasing individual awareness, to name a few."
From the first data collected, it appears that the relationship between income and meat consumption is only valid up to a certain level of affluence—from there on, consumption declines due to individual choices related to health or ethics. The link with education is also not obvious: when the average level of education increases, meat consumption increases, but women's secondary education is the exception. In societies where gender equality increases, moreover, meat consumption decreases.
For now, the scholars are comparing their projections (which incorporate changes in eating habits dictated by not only economic but also social and cultural reasons) with those of the most widely used climate scenarios, and preliminary results suggest that the (positive) contribution of changes in individual behaviors have, so far, been underestimated. "The result would be a strong call for personal responsibility and the need to further spread awareness of the environmental role of meat consumption," Prof. Bosetti concludes.
Public policies can incentivize or accelerate changes in eating habits that are often already in place, helping to reduce meat consumption and promoting the consumption of alternatives to animal proteins. Even replacing beef and dairy products with other forms of animal protein could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One of the next steps in the project, then, will be a survey investigating public support for various public policies that can help reduce meat consumption.