The Pope could achieve significant reductions in global carbon emissions by calling for Catholics to return to the traditional practice of not eating meat on Fridays, the study suggests.
Cambridge University Researchers assessed the impact of the 2011 return of meat-free Fridays for Catholics in England and Wales.
While only around a quarter of Catholics in England and Wales changed their eating habits, after bishops urged congregations to do so, it saved more than 55,000 tonnes of carbon a year, according to the study.
The research team claims this is equivalent to 82,000 shorter journeys from London to New York over the course of a year.
They say the environmental benefits could be increased if the Pope renewed his commitment to Catholics around the world, or if bishops in other countries made the same call.
“For example, even if only the Catholic bishops of the United States followed suit, the benefits would be 20 times greater than in Great Britain,” the authors of the study write.
A duty to abstain from meat on one day of the week, which has ancient origins and is backed by canon law, has been revived in England and Wales after a 26-year hiatus, according to research.
The overall proportion of Catholics in the British population has remained largely stable over the decades at just under 10%, researchers say.
They added that the return to meatless Fridays “has had no discernible impact” on service attendance.
The current Catholic leader, Pope Franciscalled for “radical” responses to climate change.
The study’s lead author, Professor Sean Larcombe, from Cambridge’s Department of Land Economics, said: “The Catholic Church is very well placed to help mitigate climate change, with more than one billion followers worldwide.
“Pope Francis has already emphasized the moral imperative to act on the climate emergency and the important role of civil society in achieving sustainable development through lifestyle change.
“meat agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
“If the Pope were to reinstate meat-free Fridays for all Catholics around the world, this could be a major source of low-cost emissions reductions.
“Even if only a minority of Catholics prefer to comply, as we see in our case study.”
The traditional practice of abstaining from meat one day a week has led to many Catholics – and broad swaths of the population in predominantly Christian countries – turning to fish on Fridays as a protein substitute.
The researchers based their analysis on a nationally representative survey commissioned in 2021 of 5,055 respondents, of whom 489 identified as Catholic, as well as the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, carried out annually by Public Health England.
For Christians, the practice of meatless Fridays dates back at least to the declaration of Pope Nicholas I in the 9th century.
Catholics were supposed to abstain from eating meat on Fridays in memory of Christ’s death and crucifixion.
However, fish and vegetables as well as crabs, turtles and even frogs were allowed.
The researchers note that the practice was so fervently observed among some American Catholics that it led to the invention of the fish fillet by the McDonald’s hamburger chain.