World News

China is urging people to eat less meat — which could have a big climate impact

In the US, the Obama administration has been reluctant to encourage people to eat less meat for health and environmental reasons. The 2015 US Dietary Guidelines, for instance, remained fairly muted on the topic after fierce lobbying by the meat industry.

But in China, where livestock emissions are soaring and obesity is on the rise, officials are being far less circumspect. The Chinese Nutrition Society (CNS) is now enlisting celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger, director James Cameron, and actress Li Bingbing in a nationwide campaign urging people to cut their meat consumption in half — in line with new dietary recommendations. The campaign, taglined “Less Meat, Less Heat, More Life,” will tout the climate benefits of lower meat consumption and feature PSAs on billboards and televisions across China. We’ll see how it goes, but even a partway successful “less meat” campaign could have a surprisingly large impact on global warming. A new report from WildAid, which is partnering with the campaign, crunches some numbers. Right now the average Chinese person eats about 170 grams of beef, pork, poultry, and lamb a day. China’s latest health guidelines, crafted by CNS and the Ministry of Health, advise cutting back to 75 grams a day.

If all 1.3 billion people in China were to follow this advice — a big “if,” but just to illustrate — global agricultural emissions would drop 12 percent. That, in turn, would cause total greenhouse gas emissions to fall roughly 1.5 percent, more than the entire annual output of France and Belgium combined. And the savings would get bigger and bigger over the next few decades. We’d get about one-twelfth of the emission cuts needed to stay below 2°C, the report calculates. It doesn’t have to entail going full vegetarian — even just whittling down portions can make a dent.

The average Chinese person eats half as much meat as the average American each year. But because there are 1.3 billion people in China, total meat consumption is enormous — and growing fast. China already consumes twice as much meat as the United States. By 2030, it’s expected to be triple. The livestock needed to support those diets have a considerable climate footprint. Cows and sheep release lots of methane through “enteric fermentation” — burps, mostly — and their manure. Plus, there’s land use, the energy needed for farming, and so on. All told, emissions from livestock are estimated to be some 14.5 percent of the global total.

As a 2015 report from Chatham House points out, the type of animal makes a big difference. Beef and lamb produce the most greenhouse gases per kilogram of meat produced. Chickens, which convert feed more efficiently and use less land, produce just a fraction of the amount. As China gets richer, the country has also seen a rise in obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and so on. So health officials have been pushing healthier diets: more fruits and veggies, less meat, etc.