Reduce Your Climate Impact: Don’t Eat Beef

Source: “Meat Eaters Guide: Methodology 2011.” Environmental Working Group. Page 19.

Donald Trump is the president-elect. He has promised to gut the Clean Power Plan (which would cut electricity emissions by 32% by 2030), decrease federal investments in renewable energy, and has appointed climate change deniers to his cabinet. The health of the climate—and U.S. government progress on the issue that literally kills 250,000 to 400,000 humans globally every year—is in dire straights, to say the least.

Driving your car produces greenhouse gas emissions, as does heating your home, turning on lights, flying in airplanes, etc., but so does eating meat, specifically beef. Roughly 1/5 of global emissions come from animal agriculture (most estimates range from 14% to 19%, with one outlandish 51% estimate), with about 60% of those emissions coming from cows (about 40% from beef, 20% from dairy).

Much of the climate impact from meat production comes from producing and processing feed for animals, land use changes, manure storage, and transportation. However, cows are especially harmful to the climate: they (1) produce methane gas during digestion (alongside other “ruminant” animals like sheep, bison, and goats) and (2) require a huge amount of land to graze, leading to deforestation (75% of global deforestation caused by animal ag.).

Based on my personal calculations, eating a standard hamburger causes the same amount of global warming pollution as driving 7 miles in a 25 MPG car. Depending on your speed limits, that’s a 20–30 minute urban driving trip. (Eating a chicken breast is like driving 1 mile. Eating the same amount of pork is like driving 2 miles.)

Here’s a graph comparing the greenhouse gas emissions—per serving—of various kinds of food (livestock in red is listed—left to right—poultry, pork, ruminant meat):

Source: Tilman, David and Clark, Michael. “Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health.” Nature vol. 515. Page 519. 27 November 2014.


Hhmm, What Should We Do…

Basically, animal products in our diets are a significant cause of global emissions—significant not only in proportion to other major forms of emissions (remember, about one-fifth of global emissions), but also in how relatively unnecessary they are to upholding the modern world. By this, I mean that overnight, we can’t start driving way more electric cars or consuming way more solar and wind energy without heavy financial lifting, but we can eat less beef and other meat without nearly as much tangible disruption.

Hence, the title of this article. If you care about climate change, an extremely underestimated issue in turmoil (especially given the 2016 election results), you can make a serious difference in your personal impact on the health of the planet—and the livelihood of your fellow members—by reducing your purchase and consumption of beef and other meat.

Using the 1 hamburger = 7 miles of driving equation, if you currently average eating two beef meals per week and you cut down to one, that’s 364 miles of driving per year you’re effectively not doing. If you eat one beef meal per week and eliminate beef entirely, same deal—364 miles of driving you’re effectively not doing.

From another angle, since beef production is roughly 40% of animal agriculture emissions, which are about 1/5 of global emissions, eliminating beef from your diet rids yourself of contributing to that category of 8% of all global emissions, entirely. Going vegetarian eliminates you from a category of about 12–14%, and going full vegan gets you to roughly 20%.

(If beef emissions statistics are not enough for you, consider that one hamburger requires over 600 gallons of water to produce, and one chicken breast requires over 150 gallons.)

Next time you go to Five Guys or Wendy’s for a burger, or even to a nice steakhouse, just remember that with one simple decision to choose the chicken (or the quinoa!) instead of the beef, you’re making a tangible difference in your contribution to climate change.

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