By becoming a vegetarian, you can cut CO2 emissions from food in half

If you stop eating meat, your food-related carbon footprint will be halved. This is a much larger drop than previously thought, and the new data comes from dietary data from real people.

A full quarter of our greenhouse gas emissions come from food production. However, it is not clear how much people would actually save if they switched from steaks to tofu burgers. By some estimates, going vegan would cut those emissions by 25%, but it all depends on what you eat instead of meat. In some cases, emissions may even increase. Peter Scarborough and his colleagues at Oxford University took real-life dietary data from more than 50000 people in the United Kingdom and calculated their dietary carbon footprint. “This is the first work that confirms and calculates the difference,” says Scarborough.

Stop emissions

Scientists have found that the payoff can be huge. If those who eat 100 grams of meat a day – a small rump steak – became vegan, their carbon footprint would be reduced by 60%, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 1,5 tons per year.

Here’s a more realistic picture: if those who eat more than 100 grams of meat a day were to cut their intake to 50 grams, their footprint would drop by a third. This means that almost a tonne of CO2 would be saved per year, about the same as flying economy class from London to New York. Pescatarians, who eat fish but don’t eat meat, contribute only 2,5% more to emissions than vegetarians. Vegans, on the other hand, are the most “efficient”, contributing 25% less to emissions than vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy products.

“Overall, there is a clear and strong downward trend in emissions from eating less meat,” says Scarborough.  

What to focus on?

There are other ways to reduce emissions, such as driving less frequently and flying, but dietary changes will be easier for many, Scarborough says. “I think it’s easier to change your diet than change your travel habits, although some may disagree.”

“This study shows the environmental benefits of a low-meat diet,” says Christopher Jones of the University of California at Berkeley.

In 2011, Jones compared all the ways the average American family can reduce their emissions. Although food was not the largest source of emissions, it was in this area that people could save the most by wasting less food and eating less meat. Jones calculated that reducing CO2 emissions by one ton saves between $600 and $700.

“Americans throw away almost a third of the food they buy and eat 30% more calories than recommended,” says Jones. “In the case of Americans, buying and consuming less food can reduce emissions even more than simply cutting out meat.”  


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