To meet the Paris Agreement temperature target and to protect forests and other critical ecosystems that serve as carbon sinks, a global protein transition is necessary. Even if fossil fuel emissions were immediately halted, global protein production would make meeting the Paris Agreement 1.5°C target impossible including through emissions stemming from the destruction of critical ecosystems.1
A protein transition has the potential to deliver 14 to 20 percent of the emissions mitigation the world needs until 2050 to stay below 1.5°C.2
This amounts to 10 to 14 gigatonnes CO2-eq per year of emissions mitigation compared to business as usual by 2050,3 making the protein transition a global climate solution larger than vehicle electrification, onshore wind turbines, and reducing food waste combined.4 Further, the protein transition will accelerate natural climate solutions by freeing hundreds of millions of hectares for conservation and climate-focused land management. Such an area, over a quarter of the lower 48 in size, could remove an additional five gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere.5
This protein transition includes increasing the greenhouse gas efficiency of existing systems of protein production (e.g., increased agricultural resilience and productivity, regenerative farming methods, switching from higher to lower-emissions protein sources like pulses and legumes, and technologies to reduce and/or capture emissions), making healthy and sustainable food options far easier, and accelerating the growth of alternative proteins.
Justifications for a global protein transition
The Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target requires rapid and ambitious food system changes
- The global food system causes approximately 30 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions.6 Today’s systems of protein production cause roughly half of all food system emissions — an amount that exceeds total emissions in the U.S. from all sectors.7, 8 These emissions stem from deforestation for livestock and feed production, emissions from feed crops, and direct emissions, including methane and nitrous oxide. Approximately 30% of global methane emissions comes from ruminant methane and manure.9
- Historically, demand for meat has risen as a function of per capita GDP. Between 2020 and 2050, global demand for meat is forecasted to increase 40 to 100 percent. The vast majority of this rise will occur in major economies, particularly middle income countries.10
- If there were no change in meat production methods, such an increase would cause an additional 5 to 10 gigatonnes CO2-eq per year from livestock and related activities alone.11
Alternative proteins are the rare land sector mitigation solution that can scale to meet 1.5°C
- Alternative proteins can play a leading role in the global protein transition by significantly reducing food system emissions while freeing up significant amounts of land for additional climate mitigation strategies, food security, and protection of biodiversity.
- Like solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, and electric vehicles, alternative proteins can supply gigaton-scale mitigation by leveraging the market to scale. Governments can catalyze innovations that enhance the quality of plant-based and cultivated meat and seafood while starting these products down the cost curve where costs fall as volumes rise.
- Plant-based and cultivated meat and seafood concentrate energy use in the manufacturing facility. In addition to eliminating meat’s methane and nitrous oxide emissions from ruminant digestion and manure decomposition, they are the land and agriculture sector’s way to “electrify everything.” As Bill Gates notes in his new book, “Cultivated meat has all the same fat, muscles, and tendons as any animal… All this can be done with little or no greenhouse gas emissions, aside from the electricity you need to power the [plants] where the process is done.”
- Alternative proteins’ scalability, enormous mitigation potential, capacity to reduce pressure on forests, and co-benefits for food security stem in large part from their massive land use efficiency advantages over conventional meat.
- Led by the livestock sector, today’s protein production systems are the single largest anthropogenic use of land and driver of deforestation.14 Protein systems, including grazing and feed crop production, use 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the land surface of the planet.15
- Instead of using land to grow crops to feed animals and additional land to raise the animals, crops can be used directly to make plant-based meat and cells can be cultivated into meat in a production facility with minimal land footprint.
- In turn, plant-based meat uses up to 99 percent less land than conventional beef and cultivated meat could use 95 percent less land than convention beef by 2030.16 In both cases, innovations will make alternative proteins even more efficient as they scale up.
- The land spared can reduce deforestation and enable access to nutrition for all, regenerative agriculture and ranching practices, natural climate solutions, production of renewable energy, and protection for biodiversity.17
What are alternative proteins?
There are two primary types of alternative proteins: plant-based and cultivated. Just as the goal with renewable energy is to make it interchangeable with conventional energy, so too plant-based and cultivated meat are focused on winning in the marketplace by producing products that taste the same or better to consumers and that cost the same or less, thus requiring no intentional behavior change.
- Plant-based meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy are made from plants and mimic the taste and texture of animal-based products. The products are focused on fully satisfying meat-eaters and are not designed for vegetarians or meat-reducers. Because their production is so much more efficient, as they scale, they should be able to compete on price.
- Cultivated meat and seafood is real animal meat cultivated directly from animal cells. The resulting meat is identical to conventional meat, and as with plant-based meat, scale-up should allow prices to come down such that it will compete in the marketplace with conventional meat.
Alternative proteins are designed to replace conventional meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy by competing on taste and price. To date, no plant-based or cultivated meat product both tastes the same or better to consumers of meat and costs the same or less. Yet, the pace of innovation on alternative proteins has been impressive, with cost and taste improving rapidly. Just like electric cars and renewable energy, alternative proteins are speeding down the cost curve and should prove highly attractive to consumers in the near future.
Alternative proteins can protect marine and other aquatic resources
- The development and widespread commercialization of plant-based and cultivated seafood — including products that incorporate sea vegetables — can alleviate pressure on both wild fisheries and aquaculture systems.
- Many wild fisheries are already harvested at maximum capacity. Coupled with the inability of aquaculture to produce some key species of fish and with projections for a slowed rate of growth of the aquaculture industry in coming years, this creates a severe gap between supply and demand.18
- Thus, there is an urgent and sizable need for altogether new approaches to meet the increasing global demand for seafood. Public research to support advances in food technology and commercial innovation can drive market-based solutions in the form of alternative seafood, providing consumers with delicious, affordable, and nutritious seafood products without habitat destruction, species depletion, and environmental degradation.
- By reducing agricultural land use and agricultural input use, alternative protein will limit water withdrawals, improve water quality, and reduce ocean pollution and degradation driven by agricultural runoff.16, 19
Alternative proteins also offer crucial global health benefits
- Covid-19 caused the worst global recession since World War II, and nearly one-third of small businesses in the United States have closed since January 2020.20 The United Nations Environment Programme has found that one of the most likely causes of the next pandemic, potentially even more lethal than Covid-19, is animal protein production.21 Plant-based and cultivated meat production have a zero percent chance of causing another pandemic since they do not involve live animals.
- Over 70 percent of all antibiotics are used for conventional animal agriculture.22 This widespread use of antibiotics is leading to more and more antibiotic-resistant superbugs that already kill between 500,000 and 700,000 people a year, with the rate of multidrug resistance growing worse in low and middle income countries.23, 24 By 2050, it is estimated that these superbugs could kill 10 million people per year and cost the global economy more than $8 trillion per year.25, 26 Alternative proteins require no antibiotics, so their risk of their contributing to antibiotic resistance is also zero.
International Policy Agenda
Market reports predict a steady rise in plant-based and cultivated meat consumption in developed economies as they reach price and experience (taste, texture, etc.) parity with conventional meat.27 However, until they reach price and taste parity, these products will stay niche. To take full advantage of the environmental, health, and economic opportunity represented by alternative proteins, truly global adoption of alternative proteins will be essential.
There is a great deal to be done at the international level. The scale of the potential contribution of alternative protein to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement remains poorly understood. To our knowledge, no intergovernmental assessment of the mitigation potential has occurred. Moreover, there is no agreed diplomatic forum where nations can have sustained discussions about alternative protein, be they of a scientific, policy, or commercial nature. This is in sharp contrast to other climate-friendly technologies, such as batteries and renewables, which are discussed regularly in the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM), Mission Innovation partnership, and other more traditional energy innovation platforms. The United States has not promoted bilateral or plurilateral programs on alternative proteins via diplomatic or foreign assistance channels. There are no agreed best-practice policies for alternative protein science, R&D, or commercialization.
Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy suggests that the world’s leaders must act now to (1) fund open-access science, (2) incentivize private sector R&D, and (3) support plant-based and cultivated meat infrastructure and manufacturing.28 We believe these are the right international priorities.
Enormous potential exists for collaboration with like-minded countries. A number of major economies have expressed interest in exploring alternative protein diplomacy. This includes reliable climate champions [such as Norway, Germany, and the United Kingdom (who coordinate together), as well as The Netherlands and Denmark], as well as nations that are already major protein suppliers (such as Brazil). Brazil, of course, is a major exporter of animal protein. It sees becoming a global leader on alternative proteins as a business opportunity, a Paris Agreement implementation strategy, and a risk mitigation strategy as consumers shift away from animal protein. Several emerging nations concerned about food security (such as India and China) could also welcome international collaboration on alternative protein. Israel and Singapore are leaders in alternative protein technology. These nations would welcome international collaboration in this area for both environmental and commercial reasons.
Three steps the United States can use to kickstart international cooperation
- Commission scientific assessments:
A multilateral scientific assessment of the protein transition should be conducted. This assessment could be done globally via the UN by integrating the global protein transition into ongoing climate science work by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, potentially in collaboration with the World Food Programme and/or World Health Organization. Alternatively, the Biden administration could ask the National Academies of Science to work with its international counterparts in the International Academies Partnership to develop a multi-country scientific assessment. The Biden administration could also ask the National Science Foundation and/or Department of Agriculture to undertake a study with science and agriculture agencies in Europe.
- Greenhouse gas mitigation potential as well as co-benefits such as conservation, food security, ocean health, and public health potential
- Assessment of innovation needs: cost, taste, and nutrition innovation needs and how to meet them
- Economic impacts: growth, job creation potential, value of innovation for 1.5 degree C, returns to public investment, socio-technical protein transition scenarios (what must be built, when, and what will it cost). Patterned on the Net Zero America Project29
- Create a forest, food, and land ministerial:
The world needs a diplomatic forum to promote innovation and policy best practices among countries. This ministerial could be housed as a working group within Mission Innovation provided that partnership expands its scope beyond energy. Alternatively, the CEM could create a new working group on forests, food and land. Another option would be for the Biden administration to create a new free-standing Green Agriculture Ministerial that could exist alongside the CEM. Under any of these approaches, the United States could be represented internationally either by the State Department or, for more technical discussions, by the Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation. Creating a new forum for international collaboration on climate-friendly forest, food and land strategies would help increase climate ambition broadly in this vitally important but neglected sector, while also providing a home for international collaboration on alternative proteins specifically.
- Fund and finance the protein transition:
- Double funding for food and agriculture innovation, devoting half to the protein transition.
- Carve out 10 percent of forest finance for the protein transition.
- Make the protein transition an integral part of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) strategy.
- Leverage the protein transition to help achieve the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation’s (DFC) climate goals.
- Carve out a portion of the American Jobs Act, President Biden’s infrastructure plan, to support innovation in the protein transition: Public investment in research will stimulate economic growth and create jobs.
- Launch research and development (R&D) partnerships: Bilateral or plurilateral R&D partnerships between leading countries would advance global alternative protein science, innovation and diffusion to ensure that alternative protein products can compete with animal sources. Innovation and commercialization partnerships should focus on Brazil, Israel, Singapore and Europe. Partnerships to build awareness and capacity in major emerging nations might begin with India and China.
In addition to spearheading these international collaborations, the U.S. should lead by example and take action at home, including doubling agriculture innovation spending, setting a food and agriculture target in the nationally determined contributions (NDCs), and as noted above, include protein transition research and innovation in the American Jobs Act.
Governments that invest in alternative protein science, innovation and commercialization will become global leaders in reducing agricultural emissions, improving human health, protecting biodiversity and increasing food systems resilience. As the world’s foremost leader in alternative protein innovation, the United States should become the global leader in promoting international cooperation in this area. Doing so would make an enormous contribution to meeting the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement while also advancing U.S. economic interests and global sustainable development.
Are only high-income countries like the U.S. interested in alternative proteins?
No. Interest in alternative proteins is growing rapidly around the world, including in low and middle income countries. For instance, the world’s first cultivated meat research center was created in Maharashtra, India; plant-based meat, egg, and dairy products are available in 800+ locations in Sub-Saharan Africa via Infinite Foods; and the Brazilian government and Amazonas State are collaborating with GFI-Brazil to connect indigenous crops with the rapidly growing alternative protein sector and spare the rainforest from further environmental harm.
Will alternative proteins push people in low and middle-income countries away from traditional vegetarian diets into more greenhouse gas-intensive diets?
Highly unlikely. Consumers of traditional vegetarian diets are extremely unlikely to want to eat alternative proteins that taste like meat, egg, and dairy. There is very little risk of tempting this population to switch from a traditional vegetarian foods to alternative proteins. However, for much of the world, increasing meat consumption is aspirational. As incomes rise, meat consumption also increases, and alternative proteins can help fill this gap with significant less impact on the climate, forests, and oceans than conventional animal products. In order to increase global access to alternative proteins, infrastructure investments in low and middle income countries are needed, particularly cold-chain technology.
Of course, animal-sourced foods will remain an important component of diets in populations with significant burdens of undernutrition, and as much as possible and over time, producing those products using cultivation can lessen adverse climate impact.
What U.S. federal agencies are currently involved in alternative proteins?
In 2020, both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded alternative protein open-access research grants — $3.55 million to fund cultivated meat research and training at the University of California Davis and nearly $500,000 each to plant-based meat researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Purdue University.
- Clark, MA, et al. Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5° and 2°C climate change targets (Science 2020).
- ClimateWorks original modeling based on Contribution of the land sector to a 1.5 °C world (Nature Climate Change 2019); Key determinants of global land-use projections (Nature Communications 2019); and Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers (Science 2018).
- This mitigation potential includes emissions reductions from reduced deforestation for livestock and feed production, reduced emissions from feed crops, and reduced direct emissions from the sector. It does not include carbon removals or sequestration. These measures would also facilitate enhanced removal at the rate of at least 5 Gt CO2 per year.
- Based on annualizing Project Drawdown’s cumulative mitigation potential of these sectors.
- The carbon opportunity cost of animal-sourced food production on land (Nature Sustainability 2020).
- Crippa, M et al. Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions (Nature Food 2021).
- P.J. Gerber et al., Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock: A Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities, FAO (2013).
- Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, EPA.
- Those who worry about CO2 should worry about methane, too (The Economist 2021).
- World Livestock 2011: Livestock in food security, FAO (2011).
- This was calculated by increasing 2012 emissions (7.1 gigatonnes CO2-eq) by 52 percent to estimate 10.8 gigatonnes CO2-eq in 2050. P.J. Gerber et al.,Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock: A Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities, FAO (2013).
- See, e.g., The Good Food Institute explanations: plant-based, cultivated, fermentation-derived.
- The Good Food Institute offers annual progress reports for the alternative proteins industry.
- Song, X. P. et al. “Global land change from 1982 to 2016”. Nature vol. 560, 2018, pp. 639–644.
- FAO, Livestock’s Long Shadow, 2006. http://www.fao.org/3/a0701e/a0701e.pdf
- The Good Food Institute, Plant-based meat for a growing world & Cultivated meat LCA and TEA: Policy recommendations
- Benton, T. et al. Food System Impacts on Biodiversity Loss, Chatham House (2021).
- Cai, J. and PingSun Leung. Short-term projection of global fish demand and supply gaps, FAO (2017).
- The Good Food Institute, An ocean of opportunity (2019).
- Percent Change in Number of Small Businesses Open, Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker (2021).
- Preventing the next pandemic – Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission, UN Environment Programme and International Livestock Research Institute (2020).
- Ritchie, H. How do we reduce antibiotic resistance from livestock?, Our World in Data (2017).
- Jacobs, A. Denmark raises antibiotic-free pigs. Why can’t the U.S.? (New York Times 2019).
- Van Boeckel, T.P. and Ramanan Laxminarayan. Global trends in antimicrobial resistance in animals in low- and middle-income countries (CDDEP 2019).
- No time to wait: Securing the future from drug-resistant infections WHO (2019).
- O’Neill, J. Antimicrobial resistance: Tackling a crisis for the health and wealth of nations (Review on Antimicrobial Resistance 2014).
- Global plant-based and cultivated meat market projections include: BCG: 22% of market share by 2035 with supportive regulation and tech developments; Barclays: 10% of market share by 2029; Jeffries: 9% of market share by 2040; Kearney: 60% of market share by 2040.
- Alternative Proteins – Research and Development, Breakthrough Energy (2021).
- Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, The Net-Zero America Project.
About this report
Support for this analysis was provided by the ClimateWorks Foundation and the Climate and Land Use Alliance.
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