Cows in a field at sunset.

March 12, 2024Climate and agriculture scientists set the record straight – emissions from the livestock sector must decline by 50% this decade, and some countries should do more than others.

For immediate release: 12 March, 2024

By 2036, global emissions from livestock must drop by 61% to align with the goals of the Paris Agreement. This, according to a first of its kind report from researchers at Harvard University, New York University, Leiden University, and Oregon State University, sets out a new understanding of livestock within the context of climate change goals, and new expectations for climate policy – providing the first set of GHG emissions trajectories for the global livestock sector, and in high, middle, and low-income countries.

Dr Helen Harwatt, who led the research as Food & Climate Policy Fellow with the Brooks McCormick Jr Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School, considers this to be a vital piece of the picture needed to move forward with climate plans: “The research findings provide much needed clarity on a key question – what role should the livestock play in meeting the Paris Agreement? The experts surveyed suggest it’s a major and critical role that should begin immediately”.

The 210 survey respondents are highly experienced climate scientists and food/agriculture experts based in 48 countries – and 60% have authored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. The latest report from the IPCC, the 6th assessment, states that emissions must fall by around 61% by 2035 to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Experts’ responses to 19 questions contained in the researchers’ survey reveal differences in how each country should respond. Emissions from livestock must peak before 2025 in High-Income Countries, Middle-Income Countries and globally, but not until after 2030 in Low-Income Countries. Following the peak, livestock emissions should fall rapidly in HICs and MICs. All countries should have a GHG reduction target for livestock production, in alignment with an overall global reduction target of 61% by 2036.

“The emissions trajectories for livestock outlined by the experts recognize key differences in how countries should act on this issue – there isn’t a blanket approach or a one size fits all countries – and the results reflect that. High producing and consuming countries must do the most the soonest, and have the most ability and potential to achieve this. The results speak to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities – which has been part of international environmental law since 1992 in that action is required from all countries, but that all countries are not equally responsible. What is also clear is that high consuming nations must reduce consumption – experts state that global emissions must peak by 2025 and so must the number of farmed animals – this doesn’t allow for high consuming nations to continue their ways by increasing imports from other countries while reducing their own farming emissions.”

According to the experts, reducing the production and consumption of livestock products has potential to make very large contributions to this target. Additionally, achieving emissions reductions should not come at the cost of animal welfare and should not result in an increased number of farmed animals – ruling out measures that further confine animals for example, or options that raise the farmed animal population such as shifting beef to chicken meat.

Globally, diets would generally need to be more plant-based, with the most substantial shifts occurring among consumers in HICs. In support of achieving the emissions targets and trajectories, a number of policy priorities were identified for climate, agriculture and food purchasing – including the provision of financial assistance for farmers to convert their practices away from livestock production where required.

“The report essentially provides the first articulation of a Paris-compliant livestock sector. The reduction targets for livestock suggested by the survey results are in line with what the IPCC show is needed globally for all emissions and sectors, so it appears that the experts are suggesting a reasonable pathway for the livestock sector. Much of the political focus has been on the energy transition, however a food transition is also needed – especially for highly emitting animal products. How much and when livestock reduction should contribute to climate goals has until now been unclear – but these findings provide some clarity for policy makers grappling with these issues, and can help with the formation of plans to tackle climate change. We’re way behind schedule on this, and technological solutions alone are inadequate. Difficult decisions are inevitable – and well-designed policy, communicated effectively, is essential”.

Report title:

Options for a Paris-compliant livestock sector.
Timeframes, targets and trajectories for livestock sector emissions from a survey of climate scientists.


Helen Harwatt, PhD, Matthew N Hayek, PhD, Paul Behrens, PhD, and William J Ripple, PhD.