Is going vegan actually helping battle climate change?

Recent studies by the National Resource Defense Council and Oxford say Yes

Forks Over Knives

According to a recent study released by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), changes in American diets have contributed to a 9% reduction in an individual’s diet-based carbon footprint from 2004 to 2015.

NRDC National Resource Defense Council IP: 16–11-B , May 2017

Similarly, an Oxford study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the adoption of plant-based diets could significantly reduce diet-based contributions to climate change. In line with the NRDC study, the Oxford study found that primarily eliminating red meat and reducing dairy consumption would significantly reduce the overall carbon footprint, and also save lives.

Imbalanced diets, such as diets low in fruits and vegetables, and high in red and processed meat, are responsible for the greatest health burden globally and … (are) also responsible for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.
-Dr. Marco Springmann, from the Oxford Martin School

Livestock and Climate Change

A United Nations report (2014) quantified livestock impacts on climate change:

  • One cow produces between 70 and 120 kg of methane per year
  • Methane from livestock accounted for 39% of all the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture
  • 55% of emissions came from beef cattle
  • By 2050, livestock emissions could increase by 30% or more

This report was one of the first that measured beef cattle separately from other livestock, like dairy cows, pigs, goats, and sheep — finding that the soy and corn-based diets for beef cattle significantly increased their methane consumption.

Moreover, these statistics do not even include the climate change impacts of feed production or transportation for the livestock sector. In fact, the United Nations estimates that the consumption of fossil fuel along supply chains accounts for about 20%of the livestock sector’s emissions. The same study found that feed production and land-use change represented 45% and 39% percent of total emissions, respectively.

Less Beef. More Local Fruits and Veggies.

From 2004 to 2015, the NRDC reports that American diets are gradually changing for the better (climate-wise). The primary dietary changes included eating less beef — shifting to more domestically grown fruits and vegetables. NRDC respondents reported replacing beef and chicken protein sources with more plant-based proteins, like tofu and plant-based milks.

According to Oxford, this dietary switch to a plant-based diet could contribute the following benefits:

  • Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds
  • 8 million lives saved by 2050
  • Mitigate up to $1.5 trillion in climate-related damages
  • Significant savings in healthcare costs

Of course, this presumes that millions of people will collectively start to change their diets. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case.

It’s Not All Good News.

The NRDC study highlights that Americans eat more beef per capita than any other country except Argentina and Uruguay, contributing to roughly 34% of all diet-related climate change emissions. The big three meats (beef, chicken, and pork) contributed to 49% of all food-related GHG emissions in 2014.

NRDC National Resource Defense Council IP: 16–11-B , May 2017

What’s more, offsetting the reduction in red meat consumption was an increased consumption of dairy, primarily cheese and yogurt, which are very resource intensive. According to the USDA, annual cheese consumption has nearly tripled per capita, from 11 pounds per person in 1970 to 33 pounds in 2012.

USDA — Economic Research Service

With these trends continuing, more and more resources will need to be dedicated to livestock cultivation in order to keep pace with demand.

Overall

A shifting diet to more plant-based foods appears to have a positive impact on diet-based climate change, albeit slightly. Increased consumption of cheese and eggs continues to offset the climate change gains resulting from the reduction of beef consumption.


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