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The climate responsibilities of industrial meat and dairy producers

A Correction to this article was published on 05 March 2022

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Abstract

Our view of responsibility for climate change has expanded to include the actions of firms, particularly fossil fuel producers. Yet analysis of animal agriculture’s role in climate change—estimated as 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions—has mainly focused on the sector as a whole. Here we examine the world’s 35 largest meat and dairy companies for their commitments to mitigating climate change and find four companies that have made an explicit commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050. In general, these commitments emphasized mitigating energy use, with minimal focus on emissions (e.g., methane) from animal and land use, which make the biggest warming contributions in the agricultural sector. We also compare the companies’ projected global emissions under a business-as-usual scenario to their headquarter countries’ future emissions, assuming each country’s compliance with their commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement. Taking this view of responsibility and emissions accounting (which is not the conception of responsibility in the Paris Agreement), our results show that including industrial meat and dairy producers’ full global emissions in national accounting would impact national targets for greenhouse gas reductions. As examples, by our calculations, two companies—Fonterra in New Zealand, and Nestlé in Switzerland—would make up more than 100% of their headquarter country’s total emissions target in the coming decade. Finally, we evaluated using 20 yes-or-no questions and a variety of sources the transparency of emissions reporting, mitigation commitments, and influence on public opinion and politics of the 10 US meat and dairy companies. According to the evidence we collected, all 10 US companies have contributed to efforts to undermine climate-related policies. Each of these analyses approaches responsibility in new and different ways. Under the swiftly changing social conditions provoked by climate change, we can expect new imaginings of responsibility for GHG emissions, as well as increased attention to the role of corporate actors and their accountability for climate change impacts.

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Correspondence to Jennifer Jacquet.

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The article has been corrected: the abstract was missing from the online publication.

Supplementary information

ESM 1

Database of emissions calculations for each company, as well as for countries (XLSX 518 kb)

ESM 2

Database of influence research, which includes follow-up answers for each company to the twenty criteria questions (XLSX 613 kb)

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Lazarus, O., McDermid, S. & Jacquet, J. The climate responsibilities of industrial meat and dairy producers. Climatic Change 165, 30 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-021-03047-7

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-021-03047-7

Keywords

  • Climate change
  • GHG emissions
  • Land use
  • Meat and dairy producers