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OMISSION BY COMMISION: The big industry that COP26 failed to tackle

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Considering the growing interest in plant-based eating, the COP26 negotiators missed an opportunity to make dietary and agricultural changes a main thrust of the global climate solution.

REYNARD LOKI: The impact of agriculture on climate change is significant. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agriculture sector is responsible for 10 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, after transportation (29 percent), electricity production (25 percent), industry (23 percent), and commercial and residential usage (13 percent). However, according to Peter Lehner, managing attorney for EarthJustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, the EPA estimate is “almost certainly significantly quite low”… “Most other studies, including by the [United Nations (UN)] and others, say that agriculture contributes much closer to 15 or 20 percent or more of world greenhouse gas emissions,” Lehner points out…

Disappointingly, agriculture was not a central topic of discussion at COP26, the international climate summit that recently concluded in Glasgow, Scotland. “Despite [the] huge impact to ecological systems and climate,” writes Suzannah Gerber, a nutrition scientist and fellow of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture—a research agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture—“specific high-level talks about agriculture comprised less than 5 percent of all official negotiations and less than 10 percent of side events, favoring the less controversial topic of renewable energy”…

Within agriculture, producing meat is the main climate problem: Plant-based foods account for 29 percent of the global food production greenhouse gas emissions, while animal-based food accounts for almost twice as much—57 percent—with beef being the main contributor. “Every bite of burger boosts harmful greenhouse gases,” said the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). “Research shows that if cows were a nation, they would be the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter,” according to UNEP. “As humans, meat production is one of the most destructive ways in which we leave our footprint on the planet”…

The dietary shift from meat to plants is something that UNEP has underscored as a way to combat climate change and increase the efficiency of our food system. In their Emissions Gap Report 2021, the agency noted that—in addition to switching from the combustion of natural gas to renewables—“behavioral changes such as reduced consumption of cattle-based foods and reduced food waste and loss” present a significant opportunity to reduce methane emissions. “[F]ast methane action, as opposed to slower or delayed action, can contribute greatly to reducing midterm (2050) temperatures,” the report states…

In many ways, this behavioral change is already underway, as veganism is on the rise. “It can be difficult to get an accurate picture of how many vegans there are in the U.S., but one survey found a 300 percent increase in vegans between 2004 and 2019, amounting to about 3 percent of the total population or nearly 10 million people,” notes Sentient Media, a nonprofit animal rights journalism organization. Still, even though there has been a steady increase in plant-based diets, meat consumption is hitting record levels, aided by carnivores in low- and middle-income countries where incomes are on the rise, like India and China…

Considering the growing interest in plant-based eating, the COP26 negotiators missed an opportunity to make dietary and agricultural changes a main thrust of the global climate solution… In the UN-managed “Blue Zone” at the Glasgow Science Center, for example, while COP26 attendees were presented with mainly animal-based food choices, only 38 percent of the menu was plant-based, as opposed to the earlier promise of ensuring “50 percent plant-based offerings within the Blue Zone.”

In order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels (which will help avoid the worst impacts of climate change), the world must achieve net zero emissions by 2050. To meet this goal, the COP26 organizers listed four distinct strategies: accelerate the phase-out of coal; curtail deforestation; speed up the switch to electric vehicles, and encourage investment in renewables. They would have done well to add a fifth: transition the world to a plant-based diet. SOURCE…

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