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Without Changing Diets, Agriculture Alone Could Produce Enough Emissions to Surpass 1.5°C of Global Warming

The global food system’s environmental impact is large and growing. Nearly a quarter of all planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions come from food production and associated land-use change. And as incomes rise and more people move to cities, consumption of meat and dairy – foods with outsized climate impacts – is on the rise.

The world population is expected to approach 10 billion people by 2050. With this projected increase in population and shifts to higher-meat diets, agriculture alone could account for the majority of the emissions budget for limiting global warming below 2°C (3.6°F). This level of agricultural emissions would render the goal of keeping warming below 1.5°C (2.7°F) impossible.

The WRI visualization shows trends in meat consumption from 1961 to today, and what’s likely to happen through 2050 if current patterns continue.

The Climate Impact of the Foods We Eat

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of the world’s foremost climate scientists, laid out in a report released last week the dangers of breaching the 1.5°C and 2°C temperature thresholds. The relationship between food production and climate change is a two-way street: With 2°C of warming, seas will rise by nearly half a meter, rainfall patterns will change, crop yields in the tropics will decrease, and harvests from marine fisheries will decline. The world will still face serious climate impacts with 1.5°C of warming, but significantly less so than with 2°C. 

Limiting the global rise in meat consumption – in particular, beef, lamb and goat – is critical for reining in runaway warming. Ruminant meats have the highest resource requirements of any of the foods we eat.

Did you know that:

Producing beef, for example, uses 20 times the land and emits 20 times the emissions as producing beans, per gram of protein

Researchers have shown that even when accounting for future improvements in agriculture and reductions in food waste, shifting the diets of higher-income consumers toward plant-based foods remains essential for meeting climate targets.

Read further from WRI hHow to Shift Diets Toward Planet-Friendly Alternatives? Learn more about one of the newest initiatives is the Cool Food Pledge. Developed by WRI in partnership with UN Environment, Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, Health Care Without Harm, Practice Greenhealth and Climate Focus, this new global platform will help companies, restaurants, universities, hospitals and other facilities offer delicious food while slashing food-related emissions 25 percent by 2030 – a level of ambition in line with the goals of limiting temperature rise to 1.5-2°C.