As a child it was a rare but memorable occasion when my health-minded mother would take me for a Happy Meal. These days, as a mother brimming with data about the environmental impacts of Happy Meals, I find it hard to think about the future my son faces and see these meals as happy. The McDonald’s beef footprint alone produces more than 22 million metric tons of greenhouse gases every year. The company’s recent announcement that it would aim for net zero emissions by 2050 may have looked like a step in the right direction—but there’s much more to the story.
Last week fund managers controlling $30 trillion in asset funds warned 1,600 of the world’s biggest polluters, including McDonald’s, to set science-based emissions reduction targets. In response, McDonald’s announced it was accelerating its climate action to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The climate commitments were made to “send a signal to our partners, to our investors,” McDonald’s said. But a net zero commitment is not a climate solution: It’s an accounting trick. The signal it sends is nothing more than a blip on the radar of climate action.
Scientists have long warned that net zero emissions targets are insufficient to avoid climate catastrophe. Net zero claims, much like carbon offsets, offer climate-friendly branding for high-emissions industries without adequately addressing the problem or changing key damaging factors in their supply chains.
Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Climate Crisis Advisory Group have sounded the alarm that net zero by midcentury targets will not be enough to prevent atmospheric carbon dioxide equivalent levels from climbing beyond the safe zone. Promising to take three more decades to address emissions, after decades of calls to take climate change seriously, isn’t a climate commitment or a real signal to investors—it’s greenwashing.
Even so, the Chicago-based company has not shared how it plans to meet its net zero by 2050 goal. It’s one of the biggest beef purchasers on the planet. Its beef footprint alone produces one-third of the entire beef emissions of the United States, equivalent to the emissions generated by roughly 4.8 million cars. Meanwhile the company continues to expand, opening new stores around the world.
Study after study confirms what we already know—that cutting back on beef is one of the most effective ways to reduce our carbon footprint. Food production is responsible for 37% of global emissions, and beef is the leading food source for greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists have shown that shifting to plant-based meals could cut agricultural emissions in half. Reducing cattle would reduce methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times to 89 times more potent than carbon dioxide and responsible for more than a quarter of current warming. Yet there’s been no mention of beef reduction by McDonald’s.
Producing less beef would also address inefficient land-use systems by opening more land to grow plants for human consumption rather than livestock. Currently the United States does not produce enough fruits and vegetables to meet USDA daily guidelines for adults, but we overproduce beef and dairy. Of the vegetables we grow, half are potatoes and tomatoes, consumed in the form of fries and ketchup. This might meet McDonald’s needs, but it doesn’t meet the nutritional needs of people.
McDonald’s has a tremendous amount of power and, as such, a tremendous opportunity to shift sustainability efforts toward solutions that work. It’s unlikely that people will stop eating burgers. But how many burgers they eat may be driven by the options they find. If McDonald’s really wants to make a climate commitment that works, it should reduce the amount of beef, dairy and chicken it buys, make portion sizes reasonable, and offer a variety of veggie-based options. That’s where the real opportunity lies—in designing new and exciting menus that reflect the urgency of climate change.
Anything less isn’t a climate commitment but a distraction from the fact that McDonald’s is dragging its feet. The company may join corporate roundtables with voluntary benchmarks to keep investors satisfied, but without serious menu shifts by the biggest purveyor of beef, crucial progress keeps being delayed. Meanwhile the clock is ticking.
Jennifer Molidor is the senior food campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.