Can vegetarians slow climate change?

Examining the impact of a meatless (and less-meat) diet

Author Michael Pollan says everything he’s learned about food can be summed up in seven little words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

His advice is catching on. Terms like “vegetarian,” “vegan,” “flexitarian” and “meatless Monday” are now commonplace. Proponents of meatless and less-meat diets cite many reasons for their choice, including health, ethical and financial concerns. Cutting back on animal products, which require large amounts of resources to produce, is also an effective way to eat more sustainably. As it turns out, it’s also a powerful tool to slow climate change.

Though we typically associate greenhouse gas emissions with the transportation industry, a 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow, estimates livestock is responsible for 18 percent of global emissions—that’s more than all forms of transportation combined! In 2009, a report by World Bank analysts challenged that percentage and estimated the actual figure to be much higher, a staggering 51 percent. A 2010 United Nations Environment Programme report states that the environmental impact of livestock is greater than that of fossil fuel.

By switching to a vegetarian diet for one year, you could prevent 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent gases from entering the atmosphere—that’s better than switching to a Toyota Prius! And veganism helps even more—a recent report states that a diet without any animal products would reduce the costs of mitigating climate change by 80 percent, compared to only 50 percent for a meatless diet.

A global shift to a vegetarian or vegan diet would also drastically reduce—or even reverse—deforestation. Meat producers need vast amounts of land to raise livestock; on average, we lose a hectare of Amazon rainforest to cattle ranchers every 18 seconds.

When replacing meat in your diet, choose natural, whole foods. Critics argue that some meat replacements, such as soy-based veggie dogs, could be as bad—or worse—for the environment as raising livestock. Production methods for meat substitutes can be energy intensive, and the final products tend to be highly processed. And, when these products travel from afar, they have a bigger carbon footprint than locally sourced edibles. Get your protein from foods such as broccoli, nuts, spinach, quinoa, Brussels sprouts and lentils. 

Global vegetarianism could do more than any other single action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Want to get started? Download this Vegetarian Starter Kit from BeVeg or simply pledge to have Meatless Mondays—you can make a difference, one meal at a time.

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