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Can we be more ambitious on sustainable diets?

How what we eat can help us reach net zero emissions

  • Blog
  • 9th May 2019

Last week, a few doors down from where the Extinction Rebellion protests took place in Parliament Square, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) released its report on how the UK should transition to ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The key recommendation of the report is to up the current targets – of reducing emissions by 80 per cent compared to 1990 levels, by 2050 – to 100 per cent. Happily, with the cost of clean electricity falling faster than expected, the estimated cost for this more ambitious target is no greater than originally budgeted in 2008.

In their report, the CCC argue that their assumptions are cautious: their models assume the use of current technology – there will be no ‘technology unicorns’ to the rescue – and UK consumers do not need to radically shift their consumption habits. As behavioural scientists we applaud this conservatism: with some exceptions, intentionally shifting mass consumption habits presents major challenges, and more robust policy measures that do often work (such as new taxes or bans) can struggle to gain public and political support. We’ve been concerned in the past by climate scientists too eager to put ‘behaviour change’ into their models to conveniently plug the ‘emissions gap’, with little consideration of how this might be achieved.

Meat production is a leading cause of carbon emissions, habitat change and wildlife loss”

One notable point of conservatism in the CCC report is with respect to meat consumption, suggesting a 20 per cent reduction in beef, lamb, and dairy consumption (replaced by an increase in consumption of pork, poultry, and plant-based products). Though highlighting that greater reductions would certainly help, they estimate that 20 per cent is necessary and sufficient when achieved in tandem with other decarbonising and negative emissions efforts. In contrast, other recent research recommends cutting meat consumption by 80-90 per cent by 2050 in high-income countries like the UK. The recent landmark EAT-Lancet commission on Food, Planet, and Health also proposes more dramatic changes to diets. These higher targets perhaps reflect the fact that the CCC is principally interested in carbon emissions, whilst other studies account for the fact that meat production is also a leading cause of habitat and wildlife loss and other environmental and health threats. The reference to diet change was noteworthy to us for two reasons.

  1. First, this might be the most mainstream reference to reducing meat consumption we’ve yet seen in the UK policy landscape. In addition to slashing food waste, a more sustainable national diet is a pillar of a coherent plan to reduce emissions. Nonetheless it remains a politically and publicly contentious issue. We hope the CCC’s latest report helps nudge this critical topic into mainstream policy debate. To this end, perhaps the more modest and achievable target is a wise move, initiating the conversation on less contentious grounds.
  2. Second, if diet is going to enter mainstream policy debate, this begs two questions:  how feasible is it to shift the national diet? And how can this shift be achieved in a way that is acceptable to the public?

We intend to answer these two questions – how to nudge consumers towards more sustainable diets, and how to navigate issues of public and political acceptability –  in an upcoming BIT report.

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The approach most governments have taken to decarbonise their economies has been to start with the sectors that require the least new investment (e.g. closing coal plants that need replacing soon anyway); are driven by technology or national infrastructure; and require less behaviour change from consumers. This has meant first decarbonising electricity supply, then electrifying transport, then heat, then industry, and finally dealing with agriculture and land-use. The CCC emphasise that the UK must confront all of these challenges immediately, rather than waiting, and we agree with this urgency.

Where we perhaps differ with conventional thinking is that the agricultural sector is necessarily the hardest one to crack: we doubt it will be easy, but we’re optimistic that there is some low-hanging fruit (and vegetables) in the world of diet-shifting behavioural interventions. We caught a glimpse of this during our work supporting the World Resource Institute on food names – simply avoiding unappealing terms like ‘meat free’ can dramatically increase ordering rates of plant-based food among non-vegetarians.

Beyond this, there is a wealth of potential interventions and policy measures which are yet to be tried at scale to promote sustainable food choices. These include altering the layout and choice architecture of supermarkets, menus and canteens; setting more sustainable defaults during catered events like flights and conferences; promoting easy substitutes to high-impact ingredients; using timely prompts, reminders and labels at the point of purchase; avoiding negative identity associations of ‘vegetarian’ food in marketing content; avoiding segregation of meat and meat-free options, and so on.

Even without such concerted efforts, eating less meat is becoming easier, more normal, and more delicious (as options increase) every day. Many consumers are already making the shift to a low-meat diet, and we should not underestimate the potential speed with which norms can change (particularly where there are no practical barriers or technological lock-in at the consumer end). These emerging trends might well accelerate as others (and importantly, suppliers) are influenced by these dynamic norms.

Time will tell whether the CCC have under-estimated the human propensity for change. But certainly, our diets have radically changed before. Let’s hope we can do it again, in a way which is measured, fair, and empowering, whilst still reflecting the urgency of action on which our planet depends.


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