Researchers urge governments to use public supply of plant-based proteins to create cascading changes that will help combat climate change
20 January 2023
Governments should force prisons, schools, hospitals and other state-run institutions to serve more vegan burgers, sausages and fillets in order to spur a dramatic shift in global agriculture, a team has suggested researchers.
They identified a public supply of plant-based protein as a “super leverage point” that would trigger cascading changes throughout the global food system.
Serving more plant-based foods in public institutions would help the alternative protein sector increase and reduce its costs, while increasing the demand for these products among the public, according to a report from sustainability consultancy Systemiq in partnership with the University of Ireland. Exeter, United Kingdom.
If vegan options accounted for 20 percent of the meat sold worldwide, up to 8 million square kilometers of land used for livestock farming could be redeployed for climate-positive schemes , says Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter, who contributed to the report.
“You get a disproportionate reduction in land use demand, which is obviously a big source of emissions,” he says. “Then you’re freeing up land that you could reforest, reforest, reforest.”
The public supply of plant-based proteins is one of three “super leverage points” identified in the report as small interventions that could create a decarbonisation cascade.
Another would be to introduce a mandate that at least 25 percent of ammonia fertilizer be made using green hydrogen, by increasing the deployment of electrolyzers to bring the price of green hydrogen as low as $1.50 per kilogram . That could make green hydrogen a viable fuel for ships and, eventually, steel production.
Meanwhile, requiring car manufacturers to produce a certain number of electric vehicles each year would help push zero-emissions driving into mass adoption. This could significantly reduce the cost of electricity from renewable sources and related storage solutions, by accelerating the development of lithium-ion batteries.
The idea was to design interventions that trigger positive tipping points, where the transition to a greener society cannot be stopped, says Lenton. These would act as a counterpoint to climate tipping points – such as permafrost melting – which the researchers warn would be irreversible and could accelerate climate change.
“It’s always been clear to me that you get sudden, self-propelled and often irreversible changes in human social systems,” says Lenton. “We need to find and encourage positive points to avoid those bad climate points.”
The report, which will be presented today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is supported by the Bezos Earth Fund, a philanthropic venture from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
The interventions, designed for governments around the world, will encourage positive change rather than banning polluting activities, says Mark Meldrum at Systemiq, author of the report.
“None of this is about banning the old,” he says. “They’re about supporting the new and raising it, to help them be as competitive and attractive as possible. So we get to a point where we don’t need a ban, because everyone wants the new thing anyway.”
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