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COP23 Recognizes – Sort of – Livestock’s Role in Climate Change

By: Erin Biehl

When I arrived at COP23 in Bonn, Germany, I faced a giant elephant in the room. Or rather, a giant beefy steer. Either way, there was an urgent climate change solution being largely ignored at the annual Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). That urgent climate change solution is to reduce meat consumption.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the livestock sector rivals the transportation sector globally for how it exacerbates climate change through the creation of greenhouse gases. Making matters worse, as countries continue to grow, urbanize, and develop economically, we expect to see a 70% increase in demand for livestock products by 2050. Without addressing livestock’s role in exacerbating climate change, there is little to no chance that we will meet global climate change goals. Finding both supply and demand-side solutions in the agriculture sector is critical for reigning in livestock’s impact on climate change. Unfortunately, policymakers have traditionally shied away from talking about changing what we eat.

In December 2015, my colleague Roni Neff wrote about the marginalization of meat’s impact on climate change at COP21 in Paris. Two years later, in Bonn, I found that the dire need to eat more plants and fewer animals still lacks the recognition it deserves as a climate solution. There’s been some much needed progress, which is wonderful—but we need more.

Some Progress at COP23

The official negotiations at COP23 focused largely on how to implement the landmark Paris Agreement, a commitment among countries to keep global temperature rise below 2°C. Aside from the formal negotiations, myriad side events hosted by governments, civil society organizations, and businesses showcased the many efforts made around the world to address climate change.

This year, there were a few well-attended civil society talks focused on animal consumption and climate change. I spoke on a panel at Nordic Food Day, for example, which was a daylong event devoted to discussions about what’s needed to address the impact of food consumption on climate change. At another event, I had the opportunity to share ways to shift consumption patterns through institutional food procurement, and learn from other speakers about similar efforts in different countries. In informal conversations, the topic was more often met with enthusiasm and interest than with criticism, perhaps a welcome change from Roni’s experience in Paris. The CLF also hosted an event with Brighter Green, that for the first time brought together individuals focused on addressing livestock and climate connections to have a candid conversation about the issue and ways to gain recognition of its importance.

Also an improvement from Paris, this year’s culinary fare appeared to be more sustainable than at past COP events. The COP23 Sustainability Task Force led by the UN Climate Change Secretariat and German Environment Ministry took some important steps towards “walking the walk” of climate change solutions. The Task Force teamed up with the CLF to share an infographic (top of blogpost) in conference cafeterias about the connections between consumer food choices and climate. Among other actions, the Task Force also aimed to source at least 20% of conference food regionally, offer at least 60% vegetarian food, and serve 100% organic meat and 100% of fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or a similar label. They also employed some strategies to reduce wasted food (another greenhouse gas contributor).

More Progress is Needed

The energy around this issue among people I met at COP was inspiring, although unfortunately still on the sidelines of the “big event” (aka the negotiations). We still have a long way to go. At Agriculture Day hosted by the FAO, for example, a minority of speakers acknowledged animal food consumption as something to address, but none actually discussed what addressing it might look like. Most agricultural solutions-based discussions of the day, and of the conference, still focused on technological fixes to produce more animals with fewer emissions, and the discussions neglected the need to address rising demand for animal foods.

The disconnect between food consumption and climate change was also evident as an individual eater. Attempting to make a small dent in my carbon footprint from flying to the conference, I resolved to eat only vegetarian food while in Bonn. I don’t typically eat much meat, but this was unusually challenging for me in Bonn. Although vegetarian meals were on offer every day, they were advertised in ways that made them seem more expensive than the meat and fish options (and sometimes the vegetarian meal really was more expensive). This provided a disincentive for anyone trying to make the climate-friendlier choice of forgoing meat and fish. In addition, some (although not all) of the vegetarian meals I ate lacked a plant-based protein option like nuts and pulses. This was less than satisfying for someone working long hours while fighting jet lag.

An Opportunity To Do More

While the sustainable food efforts at COP23 are certainly a step in the right direction, they perhaps demonstrate the political and logistical challenges of making large catering events sustainable. The food at an international conference has to accommodate for the diverse cultures, income levels, and politics of a global guest list, which is not an easy feat. Catering contracts are often made far in advance of an event, limiting opportunities to alter menus when new information becomes available. Serving thousands also requires caterers with large capacity, shrinking the pool of sustainability-focused caterers available for such events. Still, a climate change conference seems like an ideal place to challenge norms and model climate-friendly food procurement, and I hope to see continued progress at future COP events.

Although my experience at COP23 suggests a growing recognition of our global food system’s role in climate change, it is still disappointing how little the issue is discussed in official spaces at a global conference focused on addressing climate change. Policymakers need to acknowledge that these changes are necessary if they are to truly slow down climate change. Rumor has it that next year’s conference will shine more light on agriculture. It’s now up to researchers, advocates, policymakers, and citizens to make sure that next year’s discussions of agriculture include this crucial yet overlooked piece of the climate change puzzle.

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