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Shifting to plant proteins to mitigate climate change

FCRN member Helen Harwatt outlines a three-step strategy for shifting from animal to plant proteins as part of climate change mitigation strategies, arguing that not acting on livestock emissions would require unrealistically ambitious emissions cuts in other sectors.

The three-step strategy consists of:

  1. Acknowledgement by policymakers of “peak livestock” and the need for livestock numbers to decline (which may take longer for lower-income countries than higher-income countries).
  2. “Worst first” transition - replacement of livestock products with alternatives, starting with the products with the highest overall carbon footprints. Harwatt identifies beef, cow milk and pig meat as having the highest total carbon footprints globally.
  3. “Best available food” - assessment of potential replacements for livestock products against a range of environmental and health criteria. Harwatt uses beans as as example, claiming that - for the same amount of protein - beans provide more iron, calcium and fibre and produce 46 times fewer greenhouse gas emissions than beef.



Strong and rapid greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions, far beyond those currently committed to, are required to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. This allows no sector to maintain business as usual practices, while application of the precautionary principle requires avoiding a reliance on negative emission technologies. Animal to plant-sourced protein shifts offer substantial potential for GHG emission reductions. Unabated, the livestock sector could take between 37% and 49% of the GHG budget allowable under the 2°C and 1.5°C targets, respectively, by 2030. Inaction in the livestock sector would require substantial GHG reductions, far beyond what are planned or realistic, from other sectors. This outlook article outlines why animal to plant-sourced protein shifts should be taken up by the Conference of the Parties (COP), and how they could feature as part of countries’ mitigation commitments under their updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to be adopted from 2020 onwards. The proposed framework includes an acknowledgment of ‘peak livestock’, followed by targets for large and rapid reductions in livestock numbers based on a combined ‘worst first’ and ‘best available food’ approach. Adequate support, including climate finance, is needed to facilitate countries in implementing animal to plant-sourced protein shifts.

Key policy insights

  • Given the livestock sector’s significant contribution to global GHG emissions and methane dominance, animal to plant protein shifts make a necessary contribution to meeting the Paris temperature goals and reducing warming in the short term, while providing a suite of co-benefits.
  • Without action, the livestock sector could take between 37% and 49% of the GHG budget allowable under the 2°C and 1.5°C targets, respectively, by 2030.
  • Failure to implement animal to plant protein shifts increases the risk of exceeding temperate goals; requires additional GHG reductions from other sectors; and increases reliance on negative emissions technologies.
  • COP 24 is an opportunity to bring animal to plant protein shifts to the climate mitigation table.
  • Revised NDCs from 2020 should include animal to plant protein shifts, starting with a declaration of ‘peak livestock’, followed by a ‘worst first’ replacement approach, guided by ‘best available food’.



Harwatt, H., 2018. Including animal to plant protein shifts in climate change mitigation policy: a proposed three-step strategy. Climate Policy, pp.1-9.

Read the full paper here and watch the video abstract here. See also the Foodsource chapter What can be done to shift eating patterns in healthier, more sustainable directions?

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03 Dec 2018
Fodder Category