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Chinese meat demand drives livestock greenhouse emissions

A butcher street stall in Chongqing, China A butcher street stall in Chongqing, China pcruciatti / Shutterstock
03 Dec
Huge growth in meat consumption in China leads new study to conclude ‘rising global demand for meat and dairy produce means emissions will continue to rise’

A new Chatham House report entitled Livestock – Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector, has underlined the case against the global high consumption of meat and dairy products from livestock, whilst drawing attention to the world’s highest consumers and projected global demand.

China leads both tables, with 2011 Chinese meat consumption at over 75 million tonnes – predominantly pork – almost as much as the EU’s 40 million tonnes and the US’s 37 million tonnes of meat combined.

MeatLargest meat consumers, 2011. Graph courtesy of Chatham House

Regarding dairy, both China and India consumed nearly 65 million tonnes of eggs and milk in 2011, by far the global leaders. Interestingly, whereas China consumed around 40 million tonnes of milk to 25 million tonnes of eggs, India consumed nearly 60 million tonnes of milk, but almost no eggs whatsoever.

dairyLargest egg and milk consumers, 2011. Graph courtesy of Chatham House

The report firmly links meat and dairy consumption with climate change, stating ‘Greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector are estimated to account for 14.5 per cent of the global total, more than direct emissions from the transport sector’. Furthermore, they claim ‘it is unlikely global temperature rises can be kept below two degrees Celsius without a shift in global meat and dairy consumption’.

The report found a global lack of recognition of livestock as a ‘significant contributor’ towards climate change, calling it ‘markedly low’. However, it also found evidence that ‘consumers with a higher level of awareness were more likely to indicate willingness to reduce their meat and dairy consumption for climate objectives. Closing the awareness gap is therefore likely to be an important precondition for behaviour change’.

Between 2011 and 2021, although still forecast to grow, the leading meat consumers of the EU and US were found to have significantly lower projected annual absolute growth in meat consumption than China; approximately two million and three million tonnes respectively, compared to China’s 20 million-plus tonnes, more than four times more than the next highest growing demand (Brazil, with slightly less than five million tonnes).

growth Top ten countries by forecast growth in beef, pork and chicken consumption, 2011–21. Graph courtesy of Chatham House

The Chatham House report makes clear that any serious attempts to tackle climate change will require lifestyle changes in the world’s biggest economies, especially in China, where the rapidly growing middle classes are using their new disposable income to develop diets with much higher meat consumption, driving the demand as seen in the report. However, an international survey commissioned by Chatham House did also find consumers in growing economies such as China and Brazil were more accepting of human activities contributing to climate change, and more willing to alter their behaviour as a result, than in countries such as the US, Russia, and Japan.

While pointing out that reducing over-consumption of meat and dairy would also help each country improve their food security, biodiversity, water security, and inefficiency of agricultural land use, as well as the general health of their population, the report concludes ‘it is encouraging that some of the greatest potential for behaviour change appears to be in countries of most importance to future demand for meat and dairy – Brazil, China and India. Respondents in these countries demonstrated high levels of acceptance of anthropogenic climate change, greater consideration of climate change in their food choices, and a greater willingness to modify their consumption behaviour than the average of the countries assessed’.

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