Cities around the world have declared a climate emergency, and many have committed to carbon neutrality by 2030. Reducing food-related emissions by addressing food production and including meat and dairy reductions in key sustainability initiatives will help cities meet these targets.
Studies show we cannot meet global emissions-reduction targets without addressing food-related emissions. Food production, transport and disposal account for as much as 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with meat and dairy production responsible for more than half of these emissions.
Adopting bold climate and food policies brings environmental and economic benefits, as well as crucial opportunities for achieving greater equity. Black, Latino, Indigenous and communities of color face disproportionate environmental threats, which are worsened by food production. They’re more likely to be exposed to industrial agricultural practices that pollute air and water, degrade landscapes, and exacerbate climate-related impacts.
The Center for Biological Diversity strongly encourages decision-makers to set climate-compatible food goals for municipal emissions reductions and adopt policies that make low-carbon food widely accessible throughout their communities.
Municipal climate action plans are key to addressing the climate crisis, particularly when national leadership has failed. These plans provide a roadmap for how cities can reduce their emissions and increase resilience.
Climate Action Plans and other municipal policies are excellent places to make climate-driven commitments that include food targets. Increasingly, cities are holding themselves accountable to specific emissions-reduction targets, such as committing to carbon neutrality by 2030 or reducing emissions from meat purchases 25% by 2025.
Cities can integrate food and agriculture into climate action plans and
other city policies by:
Food procurement policies that determine the types of food purchased by governments or institutions are an important opportunity to reduce consumption-driven emissions. Most emissions come from only a few types of foods. The foods with the highest emissions are meat and dairy products, which are responsible for approximately half of all food-related emissions and at least 16.5% of global greenhouse gases. The overproduction (and consumption) of meat and dairy come with a high cost to the climate, as well as to water, land and biodiversity.
Procurement policies can lower food-related emissions by increasing the availability and acceptance of plant-based meals. One such strategy, switching to default plant-based menus (offering animal-based items by request, the reverse of current practices) has resulted in more people choosing low-carbon options. The Harvard School of Public Health changed the default menus from omnivore to vegetarian and the proportion of meat consumption dropped 43%, demonstrating diner satisfaction.
Some ways to impact food procurement policies include:
When possible, after prioritizing meat reduction:
Everyone should be able to choose to eat a healthy, sustainable diet. But in most U.S. cities, that is not the case, and already marginalized communities also often lack access to healthy, sustainable food, whether economically or geographically.
To support equitable access to healthy, sustainable, climate-friendly foods, cities should work to increase local, sustainable food production:
Low-carbon diets are well received by the public. A 2019 Gallup poll shows 1 in 4 Americans report eating less meat in the past year than previously. Another survey showed 85% of consumers agreed that plant-based foods can be as satisfying as animal products. A Nielson survey shows nearly 40% of Americans eat more plant-based foods than prior years. Latinx respondents are 46% more likely to incorporate plant-based foods.
One of the leading factors in a community having a positive response to shifting diets is understanding the link between livestock production and the climate crisis. As people become more aware of the role of food-related emissions, they also become more willing to change what they eat. This is an area where government leadership in policy interventions and outreach can make a difference.
Working with local community leaders on policy initiatives can help shift a city’s population toward climate-friendly foods:
Cities can increase community resilience, reduce emissions, and expand access to healthy, sustainable food by integrating food policy as climate policy in city planning and operations. These measures establish a food system that nourishes the community, celebrates cultural and biological diversity, and supports a thriving local food economy with minimal contribution to the climate crisis.
Climate-compatible food production also makes cities an attractive place for businesses and keeps more food dollars local, stimulates job creation, generates cost savings for households and improves public health. By strengthening sustainable food production and procurement, cities can address environmental quality and improve the quality of life for city residents.
Cities that enact climate-compatible policies for food and agriculture position themselves as leaders in both food and climate while grounding solutions deeply in their communities. In municipalities where cities have successfully integrated new strategies for low-emissions food procurement and policies, community support has been key.