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China’s statement of intent on meat consumption

China has published new dietary guidelines that could cut meat consumption by 50%. The new advice, drawn up by the country’s health ministry, recommends eating 40g to 75g of meat per person per day.

A quick look at the figures shows the significance of the move in environmental terms: globally, 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock farming; China consumes 28% of the world’s meat; and though the country lags behind others in per capita consumption it is catching up fast – the average consumer now eats 63kg of meat a year, but by 2030 it will exceed 90kg.

Putting the brakes on won’t be easy. There are strong cultural traditions associated with meat, especially pigs. “The Chinese eat so much pork that when its price goes up, the cost of other things rises, too,” noted the Economist in a piece entitled “Empire of the pig” in 2014. The Chinese currently consume half the world’s pigs.

The 1.3 billion-person question, therefore, is: will people take note of the guidelines? If the UK is anything to go by, then probably not. “Most of my friends don’t know what guidelines are – at best they’ll have a vague memory of seeing the Eatwell Plate at the doctor’s surgery,” admitted Tara Garnett, who runs the Food Climate Research Network.

On the other hand, the guidelines do represent the “official” perspective on what good diets look like, she added, and it’s therefore of some significance when governments start to build thinking about sustainability into the guidance they offer.

However, only four countries across the globe have, according to Garnett’s recently-published analysis, “Plates, pyramids and planets”. “The fact that so many of them have not or have been wary of saying anything too specific – like the UK, for example – indicates that they are more than just a piece of paper,” she added.

One of the recommendations to emerge from the research was that the guidelines should be clearly linked to policy – including public procurement standards and specifications, as well as policies on advertising. “We were also very clear that having good guidelines is just one absolutely tiny part of what’s needed,” Garnett explained.

Indeed, no-one in their right mind would say that once you have the guidelines in place it’s problem solved. But they have a role to play in providing a statement of intent – a vision of what ‘good’ looks like. China’s move is certainly that.

“… it is a massive step in leadership towards drastically reducing carbon emissions and reaching the goals set out in the Paris Agreement,” said director James Cameron who, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger (the two worked on the Terminator film together) has been fronting a campaign to encourage Chinese people to eat less meat.

“Tackling climate change involves scientific judgement, political decisions, entrepreneurial support, but at last, it still relies on involvement of the general public to change the consumption behaviour in China,” said Li Junfeng, director general of China’s National Centre on Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation. “Every single one of us has to believe in the low-carbon concept and slowly adapt to it.”

With 1.3 billion people and a massive emissions footprint, shifting diets could certainly make a significant dent in the ambitions laid out in the Paris Agreement. Research by Chatham House, published last year, showed how the consumption of fewer livestock products could plug a quarter of the emissions gap between the global commitments made and limiting temperature rises to two degrees.

If everyone in China were to adopt the new recommended diet, greenhouse gas emissions from meat consumption in the country would fall by 675 MtCO2e – which amounts to a staggering 1.5% of total global emissions. Without intervention, emissions from meat consumption in China are expected to rise 51% by 2030 to reach 1.8 GtCO2e – an amount greater than the 2012 national emissions of every country except China, the United States, India and Russia. No pressure then, Arnie.