Stop eating meat & dairy to save the planet. Really. Science* says so.

Researchers of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research have found that reducing the consumption of meat and dairy products and improving agricultural practices could decrease global greenhouse gas emissions substantially. By 2055 the emissions of methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture could be cut by more than eighty percent, to levels below those of 1995, if demand for  "livestock products" (i.e., meat and dairy) decreases by 25% over each decade from 2015 to 2055.

Early in June, even before the results of this study were published, the UN issued a report suggesting that "a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change."

In a study published today in the peer-reviewed journal, Global Environmental Change, climate impact researchers modeled the impact of future changes in food consumption and technological mitigation of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions on the effect on climate in a scenario over the next 45 years, to 2055. The global model combined information on world population, income, food demand, and production costs with environmental data on potential crop yields. The calculations show that global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., methane and nitrous oxide) increase significantly until 2055 if food energy consumption and diet preferences remain constant at 1995 levels. However, the agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases have increased steadily over time, and show no sign of slowing down. In fact, in 2005 they accounted for "14% of the total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions." Assuming world dietary preferences continue to shift towards animal-based foods, i.e., meat and milk, in regions and countries that have typically not favored these food sources, emissions will rise even more.

To gain an idea of how one person's food choices impact the climate, I consulted The Nature Conservancy's Carbon Footprint Calculator. As a baseline, "in 2004, the United States emitted 7074 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent green house gases. This equals approximately 27 tons per person." An "average" American's carbon emissions from diet, calculated only on the basis of a predominantly meat-based, non-organic diet alone, is 4.1 tons of CO2 and carbon-equivalent emissions a year. When I changed the selections to more accurately reflect my diet, or the diet of any "average" vegan or vegetarian, ("I eat meat in my diet... never" and "I eat organic food... most of the time") the CO2 and carbon-equivalent emissions decreased to 0.6 tons per year, 85% below average. The cumulative power of vegans and vegetarians to positively effect the environment is easy to calculate, even if you're not great at math. Playing with the calculator is fun, and informative. Even simply reducing meat intake to "Rarely" from "Most days" and taking the middle road with respect to organics, "I eat it sometimes" reduces individual emissions (again, from diet alone) to 1.3 tons per year, 69% below average.

If you're curious about how the calculator actually works, this gives a very detailed explanation of how your carbon footprint is calculated. The following excerpt about "Food and Diet" outlines the impact one person's meat-heavy, non-organic diet has on greenhouse gas emissions in very clear terms.

"Average: Agricultural activity (crop, land, and animal including management, and including farm vehicles) accounts for 7% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, with 91% of that being from methane and nitrous oxide emissions. 
Behaviors: Vegan and vegetarian diets emit 72% and 42% less than the typical American diet, respectively. A heavy meat diet emits 24% more than the average. For the organic food responses, "Most of the time" reduces your emissions by 29%, "Sometimes" reduces emissions by 15%, and "Never or rarely" is the average emissions figure."

It's pretty clear that every small choice makes an incremental, yet measurably cumulative effect on the environment, and for our future. Something to think about the next time you're in the grocery store. Start small: eschew the hamburger for a veggie burger once in a while.

*Source: Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) (2010, June 28). Conscious choice of food can substantially mitigate climate change, research finds. ScienceDaily.

How Much Oil Has Leaked Into the Gulf of Mexico?

It's an incomprehensible amount, but this real-time ticker (source: PBS) gives one some idea of the rapidity of which entire ecosystems are being killed. It is easy to feel helpless and hopeless in the face of this massive disaster, but now more than ever, is the time to do something about it.  Politicians and big oil are playing the blame game, and the liability for this spill is already spinning out into a very complicated legal web which will no doubt result in one of the largest, probably most protracted legal battle in history. However, more important than who will pay monetary damages is to acknowledge that the earth, and by extension, we who inhabit earth, will suffer damages that are only going to get worse. It's critical to stop this continual gushing and more importantly, ensure it never happens again.

 

No other country consumes more oil than America. America consumes the majority (more than 20%) of the world's oil, but has less than two percent of the world's oil reserves. We need to reduce, if not eliminate entirely, our "oil addiction," and pour our efforts into developing clean, sustainable methods to power our lives. If our earth becomes an uninhabitable wasteland, it won't really matter who cashes out at the end of the day, or who lands in jail as a result of  gross negligence. Ultimately, we all will pay.

It's hard to remember, but before healthcare reform and related hoopla took over the country's attention last summer, the House had passed "the most sweeping climate change policy ever considered by Congress."  The bill aimed to incrementally cap America's production of greenhouse gases, reducing it by 83% by 2050, mandating that 15% of the nation's electricity come from renewable sources such as wind and solar power by 2020, and investing in renewable energies and sustainable technologies. The effort in the Senate stalled last fall. When the Copenhagen climate summit came and went, with disappointing, diffident results, by the start of the year, climate legislation seemed to have reached a standstill if not taken several slides back.

With the Gulf oil spill gushing (it's still going! yet it started at the end of April. April!), President Obama began pushing publicly once again for an energy and climate bill. And in the aftermath of the spill, polls show that most Americans support strong actions to reform climate legislation.

Yet, a vote in the Senate this week suggests bleak prospects for any climate legislation change. The issue was a GOP proposal to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to regulate greenhouse gases. While that resolution (thankfully) failed by a vote of 47-53, the narrow gap  demonstrates that even in the wake of the massive oil spill, Congress still remains divided over how best to address climate change.

This is unfathomable to me; we couldn't ask for a more violent wake-up call for change than this oil spill. At least, I don't want to imagine one. Now, more than ever, it is critical to take a stand, make your voice heard, and contact your Senator, urging him or her to vote in favor of a change to support new, renewable clean energy. In addition to writing and calling your Senators and Representatives, you can add your name in support of President Obama's clean energy plan, and sign this petition (via MoveOn.org), which will be sent to the White House and Congress, demanding an end to America's addiction to oil.