Why beef matters in climate change policy

The climate change policy today can be categorised into two strategies; mitigation and adaptation. While the effort to reduce greenhouse gases–mitigation–should be continued, the ecosystem including human society would have to seek ways to adjust to the changing climate and to avoid potential dangers from it–adaptation (McCarthy et al. 2001; Tanner and Allouche, 2011).

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty formed in 1992 for cooperation among countries, had once mainly focused mitigation. However, the importance and urgency of adaptation policy have gained collective interests recently as climate change has proven inevitable even mitigation policy is on track. Recently UNFCCC has come to Cancun Agreements during 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference affirming that global average temperature will be at least 1.5 degrees higher than pre-industrial level. The Agreements was in fact based on the projection of the fourth assessment report of International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that projected global warming during the 21st century would be ranged from 1.8 to 4.0 degrees(IPCC, 2007), which is even higher than what UNFCCC and Cancun Agreements stated.

Cutting back on beef is one of the important challenges cutting across both strategies in climate change policy discourse: it will help us not only mitigate the rapidity of climate change but also adapt to the inevitable food crisis in near future.


Deforestation around the Amazon particularly accelerates global warming and it is mainly resulted from cattle breading expansion and soybean production. According to studies, 80% of deforestation of the Amazon is happening in Brazil and cattle ranching are the driving reason (Malhi et al., 2008). Moreover, enteric fermentation from livestock ranching, especially cattle, is the most contributing source of methane that has 12 times higher greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide. Several studies estimate the amount of methane emitted from ruminants is larger than that from emission from coal mining, landfills, or even gas and oil industry (IPCC, 2007), and therefore reducing demand on beef at large remains crucial to mitigate global warming.


It is estimated that about 15-40% of species will collapse with 2℃ of warming, and the extinction rate will be an half of all species with 4℃. Additionally crop yield will decline substantially as temperature rises over 2℃ (Stern, 2007). Regarding that the temperature already has risen up by 0.8℃ since 1850, human basic needs such as food and energy would be seriously threatened in the near future. The impact will spread into all aspects of human living, and ultimately it will alter the system of our society as a whole. Accordingly, food production will be increasingly difficult, and all of mankind will have to start eating less. However, if we can eat less beef, we will be able to feed more people.

Simply put, the current demand on beef is giving burden to global warming mitigation strategy than, and will continue to worsen the food crisis in near future and make the adaptation more difficult than it already is expected to be. In the past century we enjoyed unprecedented growth in just about anything including beef consumption which has been contributing to global warming, and in the future, we will have to reduce the consumption.

Check out The Royal Society journal, theme issue Four degrees and beyond if you are interested in the potential for a global temperature increase of four degrees and its implications.

1. McCarthy, J; Canziani, O.F.; Leary, N.A.; Dokken, D.J. and White, K.S. (eds) (2001). Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2. Tanner, T and Allouche, J. (2011). Towards a New Political Economy of Climate Change and Development. IDS Bulletin. 32 (3), pp1-14.

3. IPCC (2007). Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Bases. Contribution of Working Group Ⅰ to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, USA: Cambridge University Press. p13, pp 539-542.

4. Malhi, Y.; Roberts, J.T.; Betts, R.A.; Killeen, T.J.; Li, W. and Nobre, C.A.. (2008). Climate Change, Deforestation, and the Fate of the Amazon. Science. 319. pp169-172.

5. Stern, N (2007). The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp65-68.

Posted by Yi Hyun Kang

Yi Hyun is the co-author of '밥상혁명 (Dining Table Revolution)', a book that deals with food issues around the world, and had been working as a journalist for Pressian, an online alternative newspaper in Republic of Korea. She is pursuing her Masters in Climate Change and Development programme of University of Sussex and Institute of Development Studies in Brighton, UK.