Sustainable Development Goal 13
Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
The climate and biodiversity crises are closely interconnected and must be addressed as one, using a holistic approach to biodiversity and food systems.
The impact of agriculture on climate can be reduced drastically by a shift toward more efficient and sustainable food systems, which includes prioritizing plant-based diets.
Governments should consider subsidies and taxation to unlock the potential of plant-based proteins and reduce the overall amount of animal proteins in diets.
Biodiversity forms the delicate web of life and backbone of viable ecosystems on which humanity depends for subsistence, security, health and well-being. Climate change is already having a negative impact on animals and their habitats. Likewise, the loss of animal and plant species can alter the composition of ecological communities, which in turn can harm ecosystem functions and weaken the services nature provides to people, including the provision of clean water and air. Biodiversity loss also poses a serious risk to global food security by undermining the resilience of many agricultural systems to threats such as disease and climate change.
The recent Global Assessment spearheaded by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) sheds light on the strong relationships between climate change, the loss of biodiversity and human well-being. The landmark study identifies climate change as one of the major direct drivers of species extinction--third after changes in land and sea use and overexploitation. It also reveals that climate change is projected to greatly increase the number of species under threat, by exacerbating other drivers of biodiversity loss. Conversely, species loss also exacerbates climate change, by undermining the integrity of the same natural systems that can help to mitigate global warming.
The increase in both frequency and intensity of natural disasters, resulting in extreme temperatures, rising sea levels, wildfires, prolonged droughts and floods, is severely affecting both domesticated and wild animals. The IPBES assessment estimated that a million animal and plant species may be at risk of extinction due to growing human pressures in the coming years, while the 2018 Living Planet Report highlighted that global populations of wild vertebrates decreased by 60% globally over the past 40 years.
The decline in biodiversity will undermine progress toward 80% of SDGs as well as other goals, including those specified in the Paris Agreement adopted under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the 2050 Vision for Biodiversity.
From shrinking habitats of keystone species to increased resource scarcity driving human-wildlife conflict, changes in climate and its adverse consequences will become even more acute in years to come, compromising the well-being of both human and non-human species.
Tolerance to environmental changes varies from one species to another, but many are unable to cope with the rapid pace of climate change, through either evolutionary or behavioural processes. Some mammals have very specific climatic adaptations, such as requirements for snow, sea ice, or temperatures within a narrow range for hibernation. Some have distributions that are dependent on climate. Climate change can also alter a species' food supply or its reproductive timing, thereby affecting its fitness. A recent study also suggests that climate change could “raise stress levels” of endangered mountain gorillas, compounding other ongoing threats including hunting, habitat destruction and the impacts of nearby human conflicts.
Human-driven climate change is also a major contributor to insect loss. A recent study found that global warming contributed to a staggering 98% decline in Puerto Rico’s tropical rainforest insect population between 1976 and 2013. This loss of insect species has devastating impacts on animals who rely on them as a food source. The loss of pollinating insects and those needed to keep soils healthy also has catastrophic consequences for agriculture.
Agriculture and land-use change (land clearing and fertilization for crop and livestock production) are responsible for around one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, with animal-based food production contributing 75% of that, or 14.5% of all greenhouse gases. Intensive agriculture has increased food production at the cost of material and non-material contributions from nature. In addition, it damages both animal welfare, as more animals are subjected to intensive rearing systems, and human health in countries where animal-based foods are over-consumed.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than 800 million people are suffering from hunger, regularly not getting enough food to conduct an active life. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that almost 2 billion people are overweight and around 650 million are suffering from obesity. As the global human population is projected to rise to 9.2 billion people by 2050, this will require a 60% increase in global food production, using current production and distribution systems. As meat intensive “western diets” are becoming increasingly popular in the developing south, emissions from the livestock sector are projected to increase even faster in the near future. If food-related emissions are to decrease and global temperature rises are to be maintained below 2°C to achieve the Paris Agreement targets, a significant reduction in meat and dairy consumption is key.
Furthermore, a recent report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) warned that up to 80 million jobs are at risk of being lost by 2030 due to climate change, with farmers “set to be worst hit by rising temperatures.” These losses will impact not only the people working in the agriculture sector but also the very animals they depend on for their livelihoods. Unless animal agriculture in itself is recognized and dealt with as a major contributor to rising temperatures, climate change and its deleterious effects on humans and animals cannot be mitigated.
According to the IPBES assessment, “feeding the world in a sustainable manner, especially in the context of climate change and population growth, entails food systems that ensure adaptive capacity, minimize environmental impacts, eliminate hunger, and contribute to human health and animal welfare.”
The global dialogue on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in animal agriculture has thus far failed to adequately consider animal welfare in climate change mitigation strategies. Intensive animal production systems not only pose myriad risks to the environment and public health, but also encourage the overconsumption of meat and dairy products to unsustainable levels which will only continue to amplify the sector’s already substantial contribution to climate change.
However, agriculture can become a contributor to the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, and can support biodiversity conservation, while also improving livelihoods and safeguarding human health. There is potential for climate mitigation through improved manure and land management, and by reducing the overall number of animals farmed through reductions in food waste and the adoption of less meat-intensive diets. An increase in the amount of plant-based proteins in western diets and a reduction in the consumption of resource-intensive animal products is key to feeding an increasing world population, while limiting the impact of agriculture on climate change.
Concrete actions that governments, farmers and consumers can take include promoting agro-ecological solutions and practices, supporting agrobiodiversity, consuming locally-sourced, diverse and seasonal foods, removing the massive subsidies to the livestock sector and implementing fiscal tools such as taxation and internalizing externalities. These actions will increase community and ecosystem resilience to climate change, improve dietary health, and increase food security while improving the welfare of animals.
Animals are not only affected by climate change but they are also critical to the efforts to mitigate its impacts. Healthy ecosystems enable adaptation to climate change, while poor animal welfare and the loss of animals and plants exacerbate the negative impacts of climate change. Healthy ecosystems are imperative for the earth’s capacity to sequester and store carbon, and there is ever increasing evidence that animals play a key role in the maintenance of critical ecosystems.
Mammals play dominant roles in many ecological contexts. Large herbivores, such as elephants or gorillas, play a particular role in distributing seeds to regenerate forests. A study on the role of the western lowland gorilla in seed dispersal in tropical forests showed that the depletion of this critically endangered keystone species constitutes a major threat for the remaining forest habitats, and all of the species that rely on them.
Stabilizing the climate is only possible over the long-term by ensuring the health and protection of animals and their habitats. The biodiversity and climate change crises are inseparable. It is not possible to address these pressing sustainability issues in isolation from one another.
Protecting biodiversity can make substantial contributions to climate change mitigation and adaptation, but current efforts to stem global temperature rises can have negative impacts on biodiversity. Nature-based climate solutions are claimed to offer 37% of the cost-effective carbon dioxide mitigation needed between now and 2030. However, nature-based climate solutions will not automatically translate into good biodiversity outcomes (e.g. the large-scale deployment of bioenergy plantations and afforestation of non-forest ecosystems), hence the need to take into account the best available science and evidence.
Climate change has important implications for conservation priorities and approaches. While addressing historic threats to species such as habitat loss and overexploitation, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is necessary to understand how climate change also harms various species, and why these species are key to mitigating the impacts of climate change.
The policy frameworks for action on climate change and biodiversity are largely in place. Although targets have been set, they are far from being met. In addition, existing policy frameworks have failed to address the impacts of animal agriculture on our planet. Dealing with the problems engendered by animal agriculture has to be recognized as a key strategy to meet the goals of existing policy frameworks.
Actions for the natural world need to be mainstreamed into all parts of economies. Governments need to integrate biodiversity considerations across all sectors. Better environmental policies are needed, as well as better policies related to agriculture, infrastructure, trade, etc.
Government institutions, such as the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment, treasuries, and home and foreign offices, need to work together to develop concrete and cross-departmental solutions to shift toward more sustainable food systems and allow for a just transition in impacted sectors. Policies to consider include subsidizing and encouraging innovation in the plant-based protein sector and imposing taxes on emission-intensive foods such as meat and dairy.
Agricultural extension services need to train farmers and producers in more agroecological, humane and sustainable practices, as well as recognize traditional production systems which also meet this criteria.
Awareness campaigns can also help consumers transition to more sustainable consumption practices.
Tackling major challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss in a holistic and integrated way helps solve conflicting issues and creates synergies.
All actors in the food chain need to be engaged, from farmers, regulatory departments, producers and industry stakeholders to health and diet experts.
Innovations in the food sector, especially those that support new sustainable products and processes should be stimulated.