I Have Some Beef With Meat

Cutting back on the amount of meat in your diet can significantly lower your carbon footprint.

Jacob White
Climate Conscious

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Close up of a hairy brown cow’s face with horns.
Photo by Livin4wheel on Unsplash.

What comes to mind when you think about sources of carbon emissions? Many people may immediately think of car exhaust, oil refineries, or wood-burning fireplaces. True, these are all sources of carbon emission. But what about food? Which type of food has the biggest associated carbon emissions?

It’s easy to ignore what we eat when we think about our carbon footprint. Your steak didn’t buy a gas guzzling car and drive itself to your dinner plate. That sandwich isn’t actively emitting exhaust. And if it is then please don’t eat it! But all types of food have an associated footprint. About 1/3 of global greenhouse gas emissions every year come from food. Most importantly, they are NOT all created equally.

You may have heard that a vegetarian or vegan diet is better for the environment. This is largely true, although any diet could be bad for the environment if certain things are consumed in large quantities.

A lot needs to be considered when calculating the total footprint of a type of food. Water, fertilizer, processing, and transportation are only some of the contributors to the footprint. Certain foods, like red meat, have a large associated methane content (spoiler alert: cows burp and fart). We also don’t eat certain types of foods in equal quantities. 1 kg (about 2.2 lbs) of coffee may last your household several weeks but 1 kg of ground beef could go into a single dinner for a family.

But what does this mean? It means that more than just the CO2 emissions needs to be accounted for. We need the “carbon equivalent emissions” for a type of food in order to accurately assess its total footprint.

Check out the figure below from ourworldindata.org. This chart presents the full carbon equivalent emissions for various types of food.

Image by Hannah Ritchie from Our World in Data.

Not all food is created equally when it comes to carbon equivalent emissions. You can clearly see from the chart that plants are overall better for the environment than meat. And beef has a significantly higher environmental impact than all other types of foods listed.

1 kg of beef has
10x the carbon footprint of chicken
60x the footprint of corn.

A quick thought experiment

It’s hard to put the above numbers into perspective. So let’s think about it a little differently. How much CO2 equivalent emissions come from beef compared to something a bit more familiar — like light bulbs?

Let’s break it down! How long would you need to have a light bulb turned on so that it has the same level of carbon emission as 1 kg of beef?

  • 1 hour?
  • 1 day?
  • 1 month?

Well it depends on some different factors. What type of light bulb do you have? Incandescent bulbs, which are being phased out, use more electricity than other types of bulbs. A standard incandescent bulb that you have in your room is probably a 60 Watt bulb (Watts are a unit that measure energy used per second). A fancy new LED bulb may offer the same level of brightness, but uses less than 10 Watts.

How does the footprint of incandescent and LED light bulbs compare to beef?

For simplicity, let’s say that this is a light you use for about 8 hours a day. Over the course of an entire year, the incandescent bulb will use:

➡️ 175 kWh of energy,

and for our LED bulb

➡️ 29 kWh of energy.

Note: kWh or kilowatt hours are 1000s of watts multiplied by the time used in hours. This is a common unit for energy consumption that electric companies use - check your bill next month!

Now of course the associated carbon emissions also depend on where you get your electricity from. Unfortunately, most people don’t have the ability to pick and choose their electricity source, so they are stuck with an environmentally unfriendly option. If you take the average from all of the United States (and note that some energy comes from coal, some comes from nuclear, some from wind, etc.) then the associated carbon emissions are about

➡️ 0.42 kg CO2 per kWh.

So powering our incandescent bulb for a year leads to

➡️ 74 kG of CO2,

and for our LED bulb

➡️12 kG of CO2.

This means switching 1 bulb saves about

➡️ 62 kG of CO2 per year.

Where’s the beef? This incandescent/LED bulb analogy should help shine light on the carbon footprint of meat.

The carbon emissions generated from only 1 kg of beef, or enough for a family dinner, are the same as what’s saved by swapping an incandescent bulb for an LED bulb over the course of an entire year.

Meat has a HUGE relative footprint.

So what is the bigger contributor to CO2 emissions?

Meet meat, the silent environmental killer. There’s no way to get around the fact that meat consumption, and in particular beef, is responsible for a huge amount of carbon emissions.

Meat consumption in the United States from Our World in Data.

As of 2018, the average American consumes about 100 kg of meat per year and about 26 kg of beef per year. This corresponds to about 1.5 tons of CO2 from beef and 2 tons total from all meat, per person. To put that in perspective, to avoid the the 1.5 C degree warming limit in the Paris agreement, each person in world has a carbon budget of 2–3 tons of CO2 per year.

Forget the cars, airplanes, TVs, and fireplaces for a second. The average American is using up all or nearly all of their carbon budget just from meat alone!

The meat problem becomes even worse when you consider deforestation. Since livestock need to eat, more and more forests are being cleared in order to plant food to feed livestock. This lowers the amount of CO2 that can be “captured” by the forests, effectively pulling it out of the atmosphere.

Tweet from Hannah Ritchie.

Meat of course is only a small part of the problem. The things mentioned above such as driving, flying, oil refineries, and more can be responsible for a much larger portion of a person’s total footprint.

Yes, we need to address those issues. We must fly less. We must drive less (and when we do, take public transit or switch to electric vehicles). Unfortunately, addressing those aspects of our carbon footprint can take a lot more time and money to fix.

We can start eating less meat right now. And we should, because There is no Planet B.

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Jacob White
Climate Conscious

Dr. Jacob White is a software engineer working on atmospheric modeling and satellite data calibration. He has a PhD in astrophysics and is active in scicomm.