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Worried About Our Climate Future? Look to Your Plate

Yulia Grigoryeva/Shutterstock

Just five years ago, agricultural reform seemed out of reach. Today, everyone from chefs to lawyers to farmworkers are helping build a healthier, more sustainable food system.

Yulia Grigoryeva/Shutterstock

If the worst should happen—if the U.S. withdraws from the Paris climate agreement and rescinds President Obama’s Clean Power Plan—do we have any hope of protecting climate stability? Yes. Even in the face of such serious setbacks, all would not be lost. Clean energy and energy efficiency are already a part of our power system. Wind energy is less expensive than coal in some parts of the country, and the prices of wind and solar are expected to drop further still as projects already funded come online. Our vehicle fleet is more efficient than ever and will continue to save drivers money at the gas pump. And there’s another factor driving greenhouse gas emissions that we have enormous personal power to change: the way we eat. 

The effect of diet on climate change is extraordinary. According to a tool called the Global Calculator, developed last year by an international team led by the UK Department of Climate Change and the Environment, simply reducing (not eliminating) meat consumption worldwide—without any changes in other activities, including fossil fuel use—could move us nearly halfway toward meeting the 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) limit in temperature rise set by the Paris agreement. By contrast, if the entire world ate meat in the way rich countries do now, emissions would go off the charts, even if we took big steps to cut climate pollution in other areas.

Eating meat—beef in particular—has a major impact on climate pollution because of the amount of carbon-storing forest that is cleared to raise grain for cattle, the emissions created by fertilizer used to grow that grain and the emissions from the digestive systems of cows themselves. Beef is responsible for about 20 times more climate pollution per unit of protein than lentils or beans and 8 times more than pork or poultry.

Eating meat, especially beef, has a major impact on climate pollution.
Eating meat, especially beef, has a major impact on climate pollution.
Global Calculator

In the image above, the rising black line represents climate emissions if the world fails to take any other positive climate action. (All data is based on our modeling using the Global Calculator.) Continuing along our current path would lock us into 7.2°F of warming in this century and nearly 10.8°F in the long run, resulting in swamped coastlines, bleached coral reefs, increased disease, water insecurity and a host of other effects. On the other hand, if meat consumption falls to levels currently found in India (the caloric equivalent of eating one serving of chicken breast per week) and the proportion of beef in the meat we eat is reduced from 22 percent to 10 percent, as seen in China now, it would result in a major decline in emissions by 2050, as you can see in the falling green line.

The steep red line represents what would happen if meat consumption worldwide increased to current European levels (the equivalent of eating two servings of chicken breast per day) and the proportion of meat from beef increased from 22 percent to 28 percent, as seen now in Canada. In other words, if the world starts to emulate the diet of wealthier Western nations, emissions would rise sharply. In fact, emissions would climb beyond levels predicted under the worst-case scenario mapped by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2014. The panel warned of a two-foot rise in sea level by the end of this century, increasing the flood risks in coastal cities like Miami by 10 to 100 times. In other areas, droughts, deadly heat waves and tropical cyclones could also become more frequent and intense.

What’s alarming is that even if we pursue extremely ambitious reductions in climate pollution from transportation and energy, these efforts would not be enough to counteract the impacts of consuming meat at higher levels, as shown by the rising blue line on the chart.

Here’s the rub: The risk of catastrophic climate change will be almost impossible to avoid if we fail to address the impacts of meat consumption. As we ponder how the nations of the world will move forward to address climate change during this year’s climate conference in Marrakech, Morocco, and how America, in particular, will move forward under a Trump presidency, it’s heartening to know that a powerful solution like diet is available and relatively untapped.

No one expects the world to stop eating meat overnight, but we can reduce the amount of meat we eat. Many studies show that a diet high in plant-based foods and lower in red and processed meats benefits your health as well the climate. Restaurants and grocery chains are offering more plant-based options; there are even food delivery services like PlantPure Nation and Purple Carrot that make it easy to put a plant-based meal on the table. Food writer Mark Bittman’s “flexitarian” recipes are another good source of inspiration. As more people incorporate more plants and less meat into their diets, we’ll have a healthier population and a healthier planet, too.  

About this series

Fertile Grounds is a blog series that examines the challenges and opportunities in ensuring access to healthy, sustainable and affordable food for all. We talk about the entire lifecycle of food—from seed selection and planting to consumption and disposal—because there is potential for improvement throughout. We’re informed by the expertise of our many clients and allies and by Earthjustice’s years of work to ban harmful pesticides, encourage sustainable farming methods, reduce pollution, support farmworker justice and promote a healthy relationship between farmers and communities.

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