Climate Change: Will the Elephant Come Out of the Closet in Paris?


This post originally appeared on the World Animal Net Blog.

The Paris Climate Conference

The next annual Conference of the Parties (COP 21) of the UN Framework on Climate Change – also called the 2015 Paris Climate Conference – will take place in Paris from November 30th to December 11th. This issue is in the words of Pope Francis: “a principal challenge for humanity,” and this will be a crucial conference, as it needs to achieve a new international agreement on the climate, applicable to all countries, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C. It is expected to attract close to 50,000 participants including 25,000 official delegates from government, intergovernmental organisations, UN agencies, NGOs and civil society.

The Elephant in the Room

Animal protection organisations have not been alone in pointing out that the biggest ‘elephant in the room’ at climate conferences is a cow (not forgetting the pigs, chickens and other farmed animals)! Last year, the documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret covered the lack of consideration by environmental groups of the impact of animal agriculture on the environment in the face of research that shows this impact to be severe and vast in scope.

A Chatham House research paper (December 2014) on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions concluded that the transport sector causes less GHG emissions globally than the livestock farming sector, and that “consumption of meat and dairy produce is a major driver of climate change.”

Worse still, analysis for a Worldwatch Institute report on Livestock and Climate Change indicated that the life cycle and supply chain of domesticated animals raised for food have been vastly underestimated as a source of GHGs, and in fact account for at least half of all human-caused GHGs (32,564 million tons of CO2 per year, or 51 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions).

These are only estimates as it is impossible – due to the nature of the beast – to obtain accurate figures. But, as stated by Andy Jarvis of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) at the 13th Annual Meeting of the Inter-Agency Donor Group (IADG) of the World Bank: “the difficulties associated with getting the numbers correct are no excuse for inaction. Despite our uncertainties, there is no getting around the fact that livestock have a huge ecological ‘hoofprint.’ That hoofprint can only get bigger as global demand for animal products grows, and the livestock sector has to get serious about appropriate policy and technology.”

Shifting Demand for Meat and Dairy

We have already been warned by the United Nations Environment Programme that the only way to avoid the worst impacts of climate change is to shift away from animal products in our diets. The Chatham House report reiterated this, stressing that shifting global demand for meat and dairy produce is central to achieving climate goals. So why is the animal protection community fighting such an uphill battle to persuade governments and environmental groups to pursue policies or campaigns that address this vital issue?

Is it, as suggested, fear of a consumer (read supporter and donor!) backlash that is preventing action? Or could it be – using words from Christian Aid – “the lobbying and marketing power of the companies involved?”
Whatever the barriers to decisive action, these must be overcome before Paris!

Impacts of Industrial Production

According to new research carried out by Trucost for the FAO, industrial farming practices cost the environment some $3.33 trillion each year (more than the UK’s annual GDP). In the words of Richard Mattison, Trucost CEO: “The high environmental cost of industrialised farming practices is not reflected in food prices, leaving us vulnerable to supply disruption and price shocks as the effects of climate change worsen.”

As populations grow and demand more meat and fish, an increasing amount of this is produced by large corporations using industrial methods. This gives the corporations power and profit. But their operations have a myriad of detrimental impacts which they do not pay for from their profits, but instead these become burdens for society and the environment. These affect areas as diverse as animal and human health; the environment, biodiversity and natural resources; and food security, livelihoods and poverty alleviation. Industrial systems also have inherent animal welfare problems, bringing unimaginable suffering to billions of farmed animals.

As long ago as 2006, in its report on ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow,’ the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) recorded the sector’s significant contribution to climate change and air pollution, to land, soil and water degradation, and to the reduction of biodiversity. They described the sector’s impact as “so serious that it needs to be addressed with urgency,” and specifically encouraged “decisive measures at the technical and political levels for mitigating such damage.”

Yet policy makers have still not tackled this issue…

We explored this in a previous WAN blog on ‘Livestock and Development;’; and the ways in which industrial animal agriculture exacerbated poverty were analysed in a report I wrote back in 2007 for the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA, now World Animal Protection).

Sustainable Development Linkages

Nations and other parties involved in negotiating the 17 new (post-2015) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the future development framework – concluded that development and climate are inextricably linked, and only a very ambitious climate deal in Paris would enable countries to reach these new sustainable development goals and targets. In my view, agriculture (and particularly the impact of industrial animal agriculture) must be tackled if the future of sustainable development is not to be jeopardised before work has even begun on the new SDGs. The FAO and the French government have already called for food security and agriculture to be at the centre of debates on climate change. But it is also important that deeper linkages between industrial animal agriculture and the SDGs are taken into account to ensure that action on climate change also supports and strengthens (rather than hampers) these. For example, the SDGs on health and well-being; clean water and sanitation; sustainable cities and communities; responsible consumption and production; life below water and life on land, are also relevant.


Our blog on ‘Livestock and Development’ suggested a 3Rs approach to meat consumption:

Reduction – Reducing food waste and influencing consumption patterns through education, awareness and taxation
Refinement – Investment in, and promotion of, more environmental and kinder methods
Replacement – Investment in, and promotion of, cultured meat, vegetarian and vegan products; and the use of crop calories and other non-meat solutions for food security programmes, including micronutrients for the most food insecure.

I consider the most important of these 3Rs interventions to be the introduction of taxations on meat and fish products which detrimentally impact on climate change or the environment. There are precedents for this. The transport sector – which produces fewer GHG emissions than the livestock industry – already has a number of effective taxation measures in place. These include various taxes for carbon emissions, including road taxes, fuel taxes (which aim to reduce total fuel consumption and CO2 emissions) and airline emissions taxes. For example, the EU airline emissions tax which charges both domestic and international airlines for carbon emissions, is hailed as a success.

There could also be legislation to prevent commercial food waste – as, for example, the recent move by France which made it illegal for supermarkets to throw away any edible food.

Furthermore, we need interventions to make non-animal foods (cultured meat, vegetarian and vegan products and the use of crop calories) more widely available and price competitive, so it is easier for consumers to accept and embrace these products. What, for example, could be a better way of working on the root of this problem than investing in the development and placing on the market of cultured meat products (lab grown meat) as a commercial alternative to industrial livestock production? This new development has the potential to appeal to even ‘hard-wired’ meat eaters, helping to wean them away from animal products over time.

Whilst consumer education and awareness are important, these interventions will take time to produce the desired results. Excellent educational messages – such as this video on fighting climate change by eating less meat and dairy products – may begin a social change process. But they fight against ingrained culture, habits and tastes – and so progress is painfully slow. And our environment and climate need urgent action – today, not tomorrow!

However, the first hurdle is that we need to ensure that the issue of animal agriculture is addressed at the Paris Climate Conference. There is already an AVAAZ petition on this, initiated by Ubuntu 4 Animals, and an opportunity to become an advocacy partner and comment.

We must ensure that policy makers take action now to support and encourage food consumption and production systems that minimise climate change impacts, deliver food security and good nutrition, and preserve the well‐being of the planet, future generations and the animals.

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World Animal Net (WAN) was established in 1997 to improve communication and coordination among the world’s animal protection groups. We offer resources, advice, and networking opportunities for animal protection organizations across the world to strengthen the impact of their work for animals. Today WAN is the world’s largest network of animal protection societies with over 3,000 affiliates in more than 100 countries and Consultative Status at the United Nations. WAN works from offices in the United States, United Kingdom, The Netherlands and South Africa. Click to see author's profile.

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