4.5 How far could changes in consumption reduce GHG emissions?

4.5.1 What is the rationale behind consumption-side measures?

Snapshot of consumption-side mitigation approaches

Focus of the argument: Production-side approaches cannot sufficiently address the mitigation challenge we face, nor do they take account of growing health problems associated with overconsumption of food. We need to eat less of the food that has high environmental impacts and tackle overconsumption too.

How: Change drivers influencing what & how much is produced.

Example stakeholders: environmental NGOs, animal welfare groups.

Example activities:

  • Manage demand for GHG-intensive meat and dairy products.
  • Reduce demand for GHG-intensive food in rich countries.
  • Manage sustainable demand growth in developing countries.
  • Reduce food losses and waste (see Chapter 5 for more on food waste).

Many within the environmental NGO and animal welfare communities (mainly in high income countries) emphasise that demand for resource intensive food products, in effect, drives food production practices.

Consumption-side GHG mitigation is based on the premise that the main drivers of unsustainable food systems are high levels of resource and greenhouse gas-intensive meat and dairy consumption, and that this needs to be managed. Production-side measures alone will not suffice.

Meat consumption is higher in rich countries and among affluent individuals, and this would need to be reduced, while developing countries would need to manage their demand increases in a sustainable manner (as people move out of poverty their consumption of meat normally rises).

Food security is not just a production issue

FCRN (2016)

The previous section outlined production-side mitigation options for achieving food security and reducing GHG emissions, but suggested that production efficiencies alone might not be enough. While it is accepted that we will need to produce more food to feed a growing population and that new ways of producing food are needed to manage environmental impacts, an increase in food supply itself does not guarantee food security.

A sufficient supply of food is one necessary factor for food security but cannot guarantee food security by itself. Food needs to be accessible (physically but also economically) and it needs to be utilised appropriately and safely. For example, the tools and knowledge for appropriate preparation and cooking is necessary. Non-nutritional considerations (e.g. prevalence of illnesses such as diarrhoea) also influence the extent to which the body can absorb and use the nutrients in the food. All these factors need to be stable over time.

There are many groups who suggest that the real problem is one of consumption (rich countries eating resource-intensive and emissions-intensive food) and access (unfair food systems contributing to over-consumption in developed countries and under-consumption in poorer countries), and who, therefore, favour so-called demand-side and redistribution-oriented mitigation options.

This section looks further at the potential for GHG mitigation from changes in eating habits. Chapter 10 discusses how consumption patterns could be shifted.

Both production-side and consumption-side measures have potential to reduce emissions

Smith et al. (2014)
Graph showing the mitigation potential of different production- and demand-side measures (larger bars representing greater mitigation potential).
Demand-side measures such as dietary change and waste reduction have large, but uncertain, mitigation. See Chapter 9 and Chapter 10 for more diets

The IPCC AR5 report in 2014, reviewed a number of potentially important consumption-side mitigation options. The rationale is that changes in demand will (albeit with a time-lag) influence production and distribution.

It considered the potential achievable through the following approaches (orange columns on right hand side from left to right): 1. waste reduction, 2. eating no animal products, 3. eating fewer animal products 4. livestock feed efficiency (somewhat misleadingly included in this category) and 5. a study showing a combination of approaches that include some dietary change.

Changes in animal product consumption are shown to have an important impact on emissions, due to the relative high GHG emissions from livestock farming. See Chapter 3 for a review of the GHG-emissions attributed to different products, including livestock.

According to the IPCC report, reducing waste (and thereby reducing total demand for and associated production of food) has a relatively low mitigation potential, whereas eating no animal products has been shown to have the greatest potential. However, total veganism is not a realistic proposition in the immediate future, and would almost certainly have negative consequences for people living in poorer countries where serious problems of under-nutrition and malnutrition exist.

Approaches that combine some reduction in animal product consumption and waste reductions (together with production-side approaches) offer higher mitigation potential and are more realistic in practical terms, although all approaches will be difficult to implement.

Eating less resource-intensive food and wasting less could also offer potential benefits for food supply.

Among high consumers, reduced animal product intakes can also be associated with health benefits although the issues are complicated (see Chapter 7 and Chapter 8  for more on this).

4.5.2 How can we reduce demand for resource-intensive foods?

Is it possible to specify a sustainable level of meat consumption?

Adapted from Alexandratos and Bruinsma (2012)

As discussed at the start of this chapter, demand for all food is expected to increase due to population growth and per capita income rises. Most of this increase will occur in developing countries where problems of under-nutrition persist.

Some increases in meat consumption among under- and malnourished populations in low income countries are likely needed.

In order to offset this, a reduction in meat consumption would be required in wealthier countries, and among high consuming individuals in middle income countries, where per capita meat intake is arguably higher than nutritional requirements. This can be seen as a “contraction and convergence” approach – contraction of meat consumption by rich people, and some increases by the poor, with ultimate convergence; the two meet in the middle.

What level of meat consumption in both high income and low income countries might be considered sustainable has not yet been defined. Much depends on actual population growth rates, how incomes change over time, what successful production-side mitigations are implemented and of course what else is or is not consumed. The ‘need’ for meat depends on the overall nutritional make up of the diet and is thus influenced by overall dietary patterns.

How far might we get with a “Contraction and Convergence” approach?

One proposed framework for reducing emissions to within sustainable limits in a fair and logical way is “Contraction and Convergence” (C&C). “Contraction” refers to the overall reduction in emissions, while “convergence” refers to the mechanism by which this happens, namely that all countries converge on approximately equal per capita emissions. Achieving this requires drastic reductions in emissions by high emitters, while still allowing for some increase in emissions from the very poorest and lowest emitters, so that their socio-economic development is not hindered.

Applying this C&C principle in relation to meat: what if developing country intakes were to increase as projected, but developed country intakes were to fall to that same level?

How might contraction and convergence mitigate GHG emissions and to what extent?

Graphs produced by FCRN from data in Alexandratos and Bruinsma (2012)
Potential mitigation from contraction and convergence – can reduce projected future consumption but not even to current consumption levels.

Based on FAO predictions for global meat and dairy consumption in 2050 (see images in side-panel; tables derived from data in Alexandratos and Bruinsma, 2012), developing countries’ per capita meat and milk consumption is predicted to rise to 40 kg and 80 kg per year respectively. If developed countries were to reduce per capita meat and milk consumption to the same level (from 90 kg meat and 220 kg milk) then a 14.3% reduction in total meat demand and a 23.2% reduction in total milk demand would be possible. Meat consumption would be reduced from 448 million tonnes per year to 384; milk from 906 million tonnes to 695.

However against a 2005/2007 baseline, this will still result in an overall increase from 257 million tonnes of meat per year and from 547 million tonnes of milk.

So in reality, contraction and convergence will mitigate somewhat against future increases, but not reduce total meat and dairy consumption absolutely compared with current levels.

This also shows that reductions by people in developed countries, while necessary, may not be sufficient to curb the global growth in meat and milk demand, as most of the growth in absolute and per capita terms is taking place in developing countries. It is also worth noting that the term “developing countries” is an amorphous one, as there are very high and low consumers of meat and milk within both developed and developing countries – it could be argued that high consumers need to reduce their intake, regardless of whether they are in a developing or developed country.

4.5.3 Does the evidence support consumption-side measures?

What does the evidence suggest for consumption-side mitigation?

  • We need to reduce demand in high income countries but this alone will not get emissions down (see below).
  • We need to substantially moderate rapid demand growth in developing countries.
  • We need optimise accessibility of sustainable and nutritious food in poorer countries.
  • There is a strong moral argument for contraction and convergence – but whether it is realistically achievable or sufficient is unclear.
  • It is hard to define what a sustainable and healthy per capita level of meat consumption might be because there are so many dietary and other variables.
  • Shifting consumption patterns is difficult – see Chapter 10 for more on this.

As illustrated in the previous sub-section, just reducing meat consumption in developed countries may not be sufficient – we also need to moderate the increase in meat consumption in developing countries. Optimal pathways are needed to ensure that nutritious food is accessible, without over-reliance on GHG-intensive sources such as animal products.

The picture is emerging of a composite approach, that includes production-side mitigation, sustainable development of eating habits in poorer countries, and less emission-intensive consumption from wealthier regions. At its heart, this could be seen as a moral question about rights to nutritious food, balanced against environmental damage (see Chapter 1 for discussions on “safe operating spaces” and doughnut economics).

One fact, though, remains largely uncontested: that there is a need for change in order to increase food security (see earlier in the chapter) defined as sufficient and stable access and availability of nutritious food. There is, however, less consensus on how to achieve that within the context of sustainable food systems and GHG mitigation.

Some of these disagreements are discussed in the next section, which looks at how rebalancing the food system might contribute to food-related GHG mitigation.