Plant-Forward Diets Could Reduce Emissions by 61% and 'Double Climate Dividend'

Meat reduction offers a double whammy: We reduce direct emissions from the industry and free up a huge amount of land.

A variety of healthy toasts with vegetables, seeds and microgreens.

Maryna Terletska/Getty Images

It’s fairly common knowledge by now that reducing our meat intake would significantly reduce diet-based greenhouse gas emissions, especially if we focus on beef in particular. Usually, however, the conversation focuses on the direct emissions like methane from cow burps, and the energy that goes into producing their feed and processing live animals into what my vegan friends would call slaughter-based meat. 

What’s sometimes less well recognized is the fact that meat reduction or elimination offers a double whammy: Not only would we reduce direct emissions from the industry itself, but we would also free up a huge amount of land which could—if we lived in a sane and well-managed society—be given over to ecological restoration, rewilding, carbon sequestration, etc. 

That’s the basic message from a new study published in the journal Nature Food, entitled "Dietary changes in high-income nations alone can lead to substantial double climate dividend." In fact, the research team led by Zhongxiao Sun of Leiden University found a shift to a healthier low-meat, high-vegetable diet in rich countries (about 17% of the global population) could not only generate a direct 61% reduction in emissions but also free up enough land to sequester the equivalent of 98.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2)—an amount roughly equal to 14 years of current global farming emissions. 

That’s a pretty astounding figure. And, of course, alongside reducing direct emissions and sequestering carbon, a shift like this would also deliver huge benefits in terms of preserving and restoring biodiversity, improving public health, and, in a sane society, not in the thrall of wealthy landowners and aristocracy, creating additional opportunities to give land back to indigenous stewards who are best placed to protect it too

As Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor at NYU, pointed out on Twitter, such a move would also deliver these climate benefits while avoiding the thorny political minefield of rich nations telling lower-income nations how they should be feeding their populations: 

Of course, concern over telling people what to eat isn’t simply a question of international diplomacy. In an age of petromasculinity and burger-related culture wars, there is always going to be a loud minority who will decry any and all conversations about societal-level efforts to shift our diet. Yet it’s worth repeating that we’re not talking about a shift to 100% veganism but rather an adoption of the Planetary Health Diet recommended by the EAT-Lancet commission. This includes some animal proteins and even red meat in moderation, but puts plant-based foods squarely at the center of the menu. 

There are tentative signs that a significant portion of the public seems ready for that change. Meat consumption in the United Kingdom has fallen 17% in the last decade and while the U.S. eats as much meat as it ever did, it has shifted a little away from beef to less climate destructive alternatives like chicken. Now with institutional-level strategies for corporate meat reduction beginning to take effect, it’s not inconceivable that we’ll see a broader cultural shift towards lower levels of meat consumption. At least British daytime TV presenter Alison Hammond seems sold on the idea—although I have yet to find out what the health folks at Lancet think of vegan chicken nuggets: 

I’m sure I’m going to hear from critics in the comments about "socialist" plots to restrict our freedoms. But what such arguments usually fail to recognize is that our current, unhealthy levels of meat consumption are the direct result of government interventions in food policy—not least in the form of massive subsidies for agribusiness. 

So sure, let’s preserve the right to eat steak. (I haven’t yet given it up entirely myself.) But let's at least make sure that the steak we eat is subject to sensible regulations over how it is raised and that the price reflects the true cost. After all, my neighbor shouldn’t have to pick up the bill for my dinner—not unless they want to. 

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