Plant-based proteins can help reach net zero emissions

In a new report “The Breakthrough Effect” published for the World Economic Forum, three key “super-leverage” points have been identified as accelerating the move toward zero emissions across ten of the highest emitting sectors in the world economy. The public purchasing of plant-based proteins is identified as one of these super-leverage points, because of the impact of reducing meat production on the world’s rainforests in particular.

With time running out to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade, the report produced by an international team in conjunction with the University of Exeter, shows how parts of the global economy could move rapidly towards zero emissions by using government actions as super-leverage points.  The three key actions they identify are:

  • the mandate of the sale of electric vehicles,
  • requiring green ammonia to be used in the manufacture of fertilizers,
  • and, most significantly for us, the public purchasing of plant-proteins.

A tipping point is reached when a low-carbon solution is able to outcompete its higher-carbon alternative, creating a feedback loop that supports the low-carbon solution, thus influencing transitions in multiple sectors of the economy simultaneously. In the case of plant-based proteins, a tipping point may be triggered once plant-based alternatives cost the same amount as animal protein and can offer an equivalent attractiveness (taste, texture, nutrition).

If global government purchasing (in hospitals, schools, prisons and government departments for example) of plant-based alternatives to high-carbon emitters, such as meat and dairy, is required, this could rapidly increase demand and help producers reach the economies of scale needed to bring costs down.  It would also introduce millions of people to plant-based foods and help to shift social norms around meat consumption.

Researchers say that changing the market on this scale could free up 400-800 million hectares of land, equivalent to 7-15% of global agriculture land today, which would provide more land for carbon storage and biodiversity, while drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cutting incentives for deforestation.

The report concludes that the scale and pace of the economic transitions required to meet climate change goals are unprecedented in human history. While they cannot guarantee the outcome, the report writers urge policymakers to take decisions, such as switching public purchasing of food to plant-based proteins, and to act without delay!