To meat or not to… meet net zero

By Devi Santosh

It’s a thorny subject, but the notion of trying to limit the meat intake of a meat-loving nation really seems to get people’s hackles up. Clearly, the Government is acutely aware of this, as they swiftly swept a policy research paper emphasising the need for ‘considerable behaviour change’ to tackle the climate crisis, including a reduction in red meat consumption, under the carpet. The paper was reported to have been posted in error and was deleted before you could finish your ham sandwich. But it got enough airtime for journalists to cotton on, and outrage quickly ensued.

The recommendations in the erroneously published blueprint were in stark contrast to Boris Johnson’s comments in the Net Zero Strategy foreword, published the very same day, which said that transitioning to net zero could happen without sacrificing the things we love. But I think we need a reality check. According to the document produced by the behavioural insights team, the British public needs to reduce demand for high carbon activities. These includes eating red meat and of course, flying (clearly this was not taken on board in this week’s Budget where – just a week before COP26 – a reduction in fuel duty for domestic flights is set to boost demand).

The Climate Change Committee that advises on net zero, has urged people to cut red meat and dairy by 20 per cent by 2030 and 35 per cent by 2050, to reduce emissions from agriculture and free up land for tree planting. The UK Government’s strategy, upon assessment by the CCC, has been criticised for missing a potential opportunity to tackle the demand for meat and flying.

The CCC pointed out in its sixth carbon budget, that about 60% of the emissions savings that need to be made over the next 15 years will come from a combination of behavioural change and technology. It is extremely important to encourage this behavioural change amongst the public, along with an acceptance of changes to policy and direct individual action. The issue is a particularly difficult one for the Conservatives, who fear that many of their supporters will resist anything too top-down, such as a meat tax or levy on frequent flyers.

While the desire to encourage people to eat less meat overall may be the sustainable way to go, a move that replicates the rollout of a sugar tax three years ago could also have a significant impact on local, sustainable meat production, whilst allowing meat imports that are not produced to the same sustainability and environmental standards, to continue.

There is tremendous pressure on all world leaders and governments to act now to mitigate the climate crisis. With COP26 around the corner, all eyes are on Glasgow to find out what our leaders agree in the way of high-level carbon reduction strategies and targets. Even tiny changes such as putting the veggie dish at the top of restaurant menus, rather than at the bottom like a reluctant afterthought, can shift ordering habits – as could a few prime-time TV shows on climate-friendly cookery, fronted by the kind of celebrity names capable of causing a run-on ingredient. In a culture war, it’s soft power that ultimately counts, and progressives may hold more of it than they know on this one. “Let them eat chickpeas” may not be a winning electoral strategy, but until there is a clearer directive from the Whitehall officials, let us encourage each other to reduce meat consumption, eat more plant-based products and help the environment.