There are few things more uncomfortable than refusing to eat the brisket your grandmother spent 12 hours slow-cooking overnight.
But we’re going to have to get over that discomfort fairly soon. And our grandmothers might need to change up the recipe. A new study shows that if we don’t cut down on meat and dairy consumption in the present, global temperatures could spin out of control.
In 2010, nearly 200 governments agreed to work towards limiting global greenhouse gas emissions so that temperatures would not rise more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The consensus was that anything above this kind of temperature increase would wreak significant havoc—though since, scientists have shown that even two degrees would have much higher environmental and social costs than previously thought.
The new study, published in Climatic Change from a trio of Scandinavian researchers, shows that without reducing meat and dairy consumption, a two-degree goal will be impossible by the year 2070.
The researchers broke down the data into five different climate change scenarios for the global agricultural sector. We’ll start with the first three, which have little to do with our diets: There’s the baseline, in which our meat and dairy habits carry on as usual (blue); the increased productivity scenario, which imagines a world that continues to consume similar quantities of meat and milk, but can produce more with fewer resources (yellow); and the technical mitigation scenario, which would handle manure in such a way that it produces less methane (orange).
According to the baseline projections, by 2070, the agricultural sector alone would be producing more greenhouse gases than would be feasible for a planet with temperatures under control. In less than 60 years, the chart above shows that our current meat and dairy habits alone will punch through at least one emissions ceiling.
Even if productive and technological fixes (the yellow and orange bars) bring down those emissions, the agricultural sector alone would still be producing more than half of the global greenhouse gases for which we’d have wiggle room. Those emissions don’t even take into account the energy, industry, or transportation sectors, which together make up to 58% of greenhouse gas emissions today.
The only other change that’s left is our diets. The study shows that if we do all of the above, and also replace 75% of the beef and lamb we eat with meats like chicken and pork, agricultural emissions could be reduced to five gigatons a year. If we replaced 75% of the beef and lamb we eat with cereal or grain, emissions would be reduced to three gigatons.
"Fuels are the main emissions source. That has to be reduced first," explains the study's lead scientist and Chalmers University of Technology professor Fredrik Hedenus. "But what we show is, even if you remove all those in the energy and transport sector, and don't do anything about the food system, the food system itself may be an obstacle to meet this two-degree target."
But it’s not just the food system. It’s our consumption patterns, including a deeply engrained cultural predilection towards meat. Hedenus suggests that unless individuals start making a radical change, countries simply might have to include the externalized climate costs in the price of meat: A meat tax.
"There are no such policies nowadays. Most countries have a weak climate policy if any," he says. "The options that we have to reduce meat and dairy consumption come down to the perception of meat, cultural change."