Tanner Walker
Science & Tech Editor

Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has the power to improve human and environmental health as well as increase global equity. However, inconsistency in current research is slowing informed policy making. According to a literature review recently published by a team which includes University of California, Santa Barbara professor David Cleveland, standardization in the global research community is necessary for climate change studies to have influence on policy makers.

“It’s hard to estimate the combined significance of the studies that have been done because they use so many different methods and assumptions,” said Cleveland in an interview with The Bottom Line. “The reason for that review article was to get an idea of how much health co-benefit you can get from these changes, but also to argue for more consistency in methodology.”

Opponents of reducing GHG emissions argue that the benefits will not come soon enough, but according to Cleveland, immediate benefits will come and they will offset a portion of the initial cost.

The benefits of reduced GHG emissions are often seen as purely environmental, but human health, environmental health, and the economy are all part of a complex web of problems and solutions. Near the center of that web is the global food system.

“We have these three major global crises: increasing inequity, increasing health problems, increasing environmental problems, and they’re all connected through the food system,” said Cleveland. “We have to tackle these big problems as complex, interrelated systems.”

Starting with the human health crisis, Cleveland said, “diets that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and diets that improve health can overlap.” For example, Ruminant meat from cows and sheep is strongly linked to an increased likelihood of cancer, and its production chain produces high amounts of GHG emissions.

According to Cleveland, changing the standard American diet by replacing foods like red meat and refined grains improves health and decreases spending on healthcare.

“We estimated about $93 billion can be saved annually from just a relatively minor change in diet,” said Cleveland. “It also lowers the risk of coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes by 25-to-45 percent.”

A dietary change also plays a part in increasing global equality. “There are limits to what we can take out of the environment for everything we use, including food,” said Cleveland. “If high consuming populations are using a lot of resources for their food and emitting a lot of GHG in the atmosphere, other people just don’t have that opportunity. People who are consuming high amounts of food resources need to lower that in order for other people to be able to consume more and consume better.”

The literature review Cleveland took part in aimed to find and recommend the most effective and standardized practices to inform policy makers and guide future research. The review found that current studies, while effective and insightful, lack the consistency needed to be relevant for policy-making decisions.

New research, according to Cleveland, needs to account for the complex relationship shared by the environment, human health, and global equity. “People aren’t very aware of [the complex relationship]. If everyone is off in their own corner, we could end up doing things that are counter-productive,” said Cleveland.

Standardizing and combining results to include effects like health and economic benefits would make scientific findings more appealing to policy makers concerned with their bottom line.

“You get a higher return on investment than just the direct climate mitigation,” said Cleveland. “You get a health benefit which reduces the net cost, so that makes it more attractive to policy makers who are thinking in terms of how much things are going to cost. The main reason for the paper was to say if this research is going to have an impact on policy making, we need to have more consistency.”

For students interested in this topic, professor Cleveland will be teaching Environmental Studies 166DC, “Diet and Global Climate Change,” in winter quarter 2018.