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Animal-based foods have high social and climate costs

Abstract

Despite the importance of animal-based agricultural greenhouse gas emissions as drivers of climate change, the climate costs of such emissions have not yet been quantified in an integrated way. Using a macroeconomic–climate framework, we coupled global agricultural and industrial economies to estimate these costs at a regional level. To be consistent with end-of-century temperature increases of 1.5–3 °C, we found that every 10-percentage-point increase in agricultural emissions required a compensating 1.5-percentage-point reduction in industrial emissions—the ‘emissions opportunity cost’ of animal-based foods. Alternatively, if agricultural emissions were not offset in the industrial sector, diets high in animal protein contributed US$72 per person per year in additional climate damage—approximately half of the annual climate damage produced by the average passenger vehicle in the United States. Our analysis revealed geographic heterogeneity in climate costs by diet and food type, suggesting opportunities for mitigation policies while recognizing food insecurity risks.

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Fig. 1: DICE-FARM comprises four distinct modules assembled from three existing models.
Fig. 2: Total and near-term temperature effects of dietary GHG emissions.
Fig. 3: Industrial and animal agriculture GHG emissions trade-offs underlying limited warming scenarios.
Fig. 4: Spatial variation in the climate costs of animal product consumption and production.

Data availability

The datasets generated and/or analysed during the current study are archived58 and publicly available on K.K.’s Github website: https://github.com/kevinkuruc/ClimateCostsofAnimalFoods_NatureFood2021.

Code availability

The code used to generate all results is archived58 and available at https://github.com/kevinkuruc/ClimateCostsofAnimalFoods_NatureFood2021.

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Acknowledgements

We thank D. Anthoff, M. Budolfson and D. Spears for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript and L. Rennels for coding assistance. This research was supported in part by a grant from the Research Council of the University of Oklahoma. The funders had no role in study design, collection and analysis of data, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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K.K. designed the research. F.E., K.K. and J.M. performed the research. F.E., K.K. and J.M. analysed the data. F.E., K.K. and J.M. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Kevin Kuruc.

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Peer review information Nature Food thanks Eva Wollenberg and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1–7, Figs. 1–5 and Discussion.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Table 8

Annual per capita protein consumption and household food expenditures.

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Errickson, F., Kuruc, K. & McFadden, J. Animal-based foods have high social and climate costs. Nat Food 2, 274–281 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00265-1

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