Studies & Numbers

Groundbreaking Harvard Study Outlines Clear Path to Reducing Global Livestock Sector’s Emissions by 61%

In a recent collaborative research effort led by scientists from Harvard University, New York University, Leiden University, and Oregon State University, a report has been published, presenting a clear path for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the global livestock sector. The report, which claims to be the first in its field, delineates a trajectory aligning with the Paris Agreement’s climate goals, stipulating a 61% decrease in emissions by 2036.

“Difficult decisions are inevitable – and well-designed policy, communicated effectively, is essential”

Spearheaded by Dr. Helen Harwatt, a food and climate policy fellow at Harvard Law School’s Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law & Policy Program, the research highlights the critical role of the livestock sector in climate change mitigation efforts. “The research findings provide much-needed clarity on a key question – what role should the livestock play in meeting the Paris Agreement? The experts surveyed suggest it’s a major and critical role that should begin immediately,” remarked Dr. Harwatt in a media release.

First articulation of Paris-compliant livestock sector

This call to action is based on the responses of 210 seasoned climate scientists and food/agriculture experts from 48 countries, many of whom have contributed to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. According to the latest IPCC assessment, a 61% reduction in emissions by 2035 is imperative to curb warming to 1.5°C.

“The report essentially provides the first articulation of a Paris-compliant livestock sector,” stated the researchers, pointing out the alignment of their suggested reduction targets with the broader goals outlined by the IPCC for all sectors. The report, titled “Options for a Paris-Compliant Livestock Sector: Timeframes, Targets, and Trajectories for Livestock Sector Emissions from a Survey of Climate Scientists,” is authored by Helen Harwatt, Matthew N Hayek, Paul Behrens, and William J Ripple.

Harvard Law School livestock emissions report
© Harvard Law School

Key insights derived from the report:

Global emission reduction targets: The report sets a target for the global livestock sector, recommending a 61% reduction in emissions by 2036. This target is crucial for meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global warming and represents a significant challenge for the industry.

Varying responsibilities and timelines: According to the findings, there are varying responsibilities and timelines for emission reductions among countries based on their economic status. High-income countries are expected to lead by example, achieving emission peaks before 2025, whereas middle-income countries should follow shortly thereafter. Low-income countries have a more extended timeline, with their peak emissions expected after 2030. This tiered approach acknowledges the different capacities and roles countries play in the global climate ecosystem.

The critical role of livestock in climate plans: The researchers underscore the livestock sector’s crucial role in climate mitigation efforts. The study suggests immediate action is necessary to integrate livestock emission reductions into national and global climate strategies.

Reduction strategies: A significant part of emission reductions is anticipated to come from reducing both the consumption of livestock products and the number of animals farmed. Technological advancements, improved manure management, and soil carbon sequestration are identified as additional but moderately contributing strategies.

Policy recommendations: The report calls for comprehensive policy measures, including financial incentives for farmers to shift away from livestock production and the adoption of ‘best available food’ policies that prioritize plant-based alternatives.

Dietary shifts: Aligning consumer diets with the Paris Agreement involves a substantial move towards plant-based foods, especially in high- and middle-income countries. This dietary transition is crucial for reducing the sector’s GHG emissions.

chicken farm
© roibu – stock.adobe.com

The findings not only highlight the significant potential impact of reducing livestock production and consumption on global emissions but also call for immediate and coordinated actions to realign the livestock sector with the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

Food system transition to meet climate goals

Dr. Harwatt noted, “Much of the political focus has been on the energy transition, however a food transition is also needed – especially for highly emitting animal products. How much and when livestock reduction should contribute to climate goals has until now been unclear – but these findings provide some clarity for policymakers grappling with these issues and can help with the formation of plans to tackle climate change.

“We’re way behind schedule on this, and technological solutions alone are inadequate. Difficult decisions are inevitable – and well-designed policy, communicated effectively, is essential.”

Find the full report here.

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