A LEADING climate scientist has warned that Scots should be told “to reduce our meat intake” or face hitting a tipping point in the fight against the climate emergency amid concerns the SNP have left key behaviour changes out of an ambitious blueprint to cut emissions.
Agricultural pollution accounts for around one quarter of Scotland’s total emissions – with ministers aiming to reduce the sector’s impact from 7MtCO2e in 2020 to 5.3MtCO2e by 2032.
The Scottish Government has committed to cutting 1990 levels of carbon emissions by 75 per cent, but ministers have also pledged to double food and drink exports during the same period of time.
Scotland’s Rural Economy Secretary has insisted that reducing the production of meat and dairy is “not the way forward”.
Professor Pete Smith, from Aberdeen University, has told MSPs investigating the Scottish Government’s strategy that we “have a responsibility…to reduce our meat intake”.
The Scottish Government’s strategy for cutting agriculture emissions
He added: ”We must act—we cannot defer action and say that Scotland is the exception because we farm in a relatively environmentally way in comparison with other countries and so should get a get-out-of-jail free card.
“In social justice and equity terms, we currently overconsume protein by between 80 and 100%.
“We could eat a considerably lower level of animal-based products without significantly affecting our diet. We could certainly cut our diet in that respect and contribute globally to reducing emissions from food, particularly in the livestock sector.”
Professor Smith added that “if we push for healthier diets with less meat and dairy, we could free up huge swathes of land” – which could potentially be used to restore peatlands or tree planting.
He also suggested that any future carbon taxes could make meat and dairy products more expensive that “would help to nudge people in the right direction”.
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But Professor Smith warned that “if we were to raise any money from high-carbon food taxes” the funding would need to be used “to subside fruit and veg for poorer sections of the community”.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels would lead to a tipping points for changes to the planet from which scientists believe there would be no return from.
Professor Smith added: “Global studies have shown that if we continue to eat meat-intensive diets in the way that we currently do—and our consumption is projected to increase—we will surpass the 1.5° limit by diet alone.
“Even if we reduced all our emissions in all other sectors to zero, continuing with our current diet would push us beyond the 1.5° limit.”
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent advisory body, has recommended that carbon intensive foods such as beef, lamb and dairy should be reduced by at least 20% per person – and potentially by as much as 40%.
Chief executive of the CCC, Christ Stark, the Scottish Government’s former director of energy and climate change, stressed that no-one is “proposing that we stop grazing livestock on Scottish farmland”, but warned “there is an overall need to change the way in which we use land”.
Chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change, Chris Stark
Mr Stark said that “there is nothing about diet change at all” in the SNP’s strategy, labelling the omission “a disappointment”.
He added: “Every sector has to contribute to the challenge of getting to net zero. The agriculture sector has not been contributing to that reduction in emissions to date, but the plan commits to reducing emissions from the sector by a quarter over the next decade or so.
“The policies to deliver that will be tough, and the Scottish ministers will have to work hard to deliver the outcome because, historically, that has not been what has happened in the sector. To imagine that it can happen without considering the livestock themselves and what we do about those emissions is magical thinking.”
But Rural Economy and Tourism Minister, Fergus Ewing, has indicated he has no intention of reducing the amount of meat produced and consumed in Scotland, stressing “we have to farm sustainably while producing high-quality food”.
Rural Economy and Tourism Secretary, Fergus Ewing
He added: “Some argue, and I think really on the fringes, that the only way to tackle climate change is to abandon livestock production altogether – that is not the way forward for Scotland, absolutely not.
“Let’s assume that we did that. Would people want to stop eating meat? No, they wouldn’t – they would simply buy meat that was imported from other countries, many of whom do not observe the very high animal welfare standards and hygiene standards and rules governing the operation of the supply chain that we have in Scotland and indeed the UK.
“I do think that climate change and high-quality food production go hand in hand and were we to imperil food production to pursue climate change, we wouldn’t achieve climate change – all we would achieve is displacement and possibly a higher overall carbon footprint.”
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Scottish Greens food and farming spokesperson, Mark Ruskell, said: “Consumer trends are already shifting towards eating less meat and dairy which is a boost for the climate and health.
“Instead of bucking that trend the Scottish Government should recognise there are opportunities for famers to produce more of what we eat, especially fruit and veg which is often imported.
“The UK CCC have been rightly critical of the Scottish Government for a lack of ambition on farming and climate. It needs change, farmers need support to make soils and land better stores of carbon, while maintaining profitable food production.”