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Research: Emissions from livestock sector must decline by 50% this decade, experts warn
Melissa Bradshaw

Melissa Bradshaw

26 March 2024

Research: Emissions from livestock sector must decline by 50% this decade, experts warn

A new report from researchers in the US and the Netherlands states that by 2036, global emissions from the livestock sector must drop by 61% to align with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The ‘first-of-its-kind’ report, from researchers at Harvard, New York, Oregon State and Leiden Universities, aims to set out a new understanding of livestock within the context of climate change goals and new expectations for climate policy. It provides the first set of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) trajectories for the global livestock sector, and in high-, middle- and low-income countries. A total of 210 experts in climate science, food and agriculture across 48 countries were surveyed. 60% of the respondents have authored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. The latest report from the IPCC states that emissions must fall by around 61% by 2036 to limit warming to 1.5°C. According to the experts’ responses to the 19 questions contained in the survey, emissions from livestock must peak before 2025 in high-income countries (HICs), middle-income countries (MICs) and globally, but not until after 2030 in low-income countries (LICs). Following the peak, livestock emissions should fall rapidly in HICs and MICs. All countries should have a GHG reduction target for livestock production, in alignment with an overall global reduction target of 61% by 2036. Helen Harwatt, who led the research as food and climate policy fellow at Harvard Law School, said that the results show that the livestock industry’s role in reducing emissions is “major and critical” and “should begin immediately,” adding that there is no “blanket approach or a one-size-fits-all countries”. She commented: “High-producing and -consuming countries must do the most the soonest, and have the most ability and potential to achieve this. The results speak to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities – which has been part of international environmental law since 1992 in that action is required from all countries, but that all countries are not equally responsible.”


“What is also clear is that high-consuming nations must reduce consumption – experts state that global emissions must peak by 2025 and so must the number of farmed animals – this doesn’t allow for high-consuming nations to continue their ways by increasing imports from other countries while reducing their own farming emissions.”

The report details how reducing the production and consumption of livestock products has the potential to make significant headway on these targets. It adds that achieving emissions reductions should not come at the cost of animal welfare and should not result in an increased number of farmed animals, ruling out measures that further confine animals for example, or options that raise the farmed animal population such as shifting beef to chicken meat. Globally, experts say that diets generally need to be more plant-based, with the most substantial shifts occurring among consumers in HICs. In support of achieving the targets and trajectories, several policy priorities were identified for climate, agriculture and food purchasing, including the provision of financial assistance for farmers to convert their practices away from livestock production where required. “Much of the political focus has been on the energy transition, however a food transition is also needed – especially for highly emitting animal products,” Harwatt said. “How much and when livestock reduction should contribute to climate goals has until now been unclear – but these findings provide some clarity for policymakers grappling with these issues, and can help with the formation of plans to tackle climate change.” Harwatt added that the global industry is “way behind schedule” on emissions reductions, and that technological solutions alone are “inadequate”. “Difficult decisions are inevitable – and well-designed policy, communicated effectively, is essential,” she concluded.

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