Opinion staff column

Abate emissions with greens in quarantine

A one month challenge to cut over 224 pounds from your carbon footprint

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Quarantine’s the best time to make the change to plant-based options.
Courtesy of Impossible, Restaurant Brands International, Just, and Carl's Jr.

Locked in our homes, it may feel as though there’s little way to help the Earth. What else can we do now that we’ve slowed our consumption and ceased our travels?

Most of us know that, Ubers and plane trips aside, much of our carbon footprint results from our emissions-heavy consumption of meat. In fact, you could cut up to 60% of your footprint, just by eating a more vegetarian diet. The switch can be hard; major obstacles include busy lifestyles, lack of quality meat-free options, force of habit. This makes quarantine, with more free time and cooking autonomy than ever, the best time to challenge yourself to a plant-based diet.

In a time when every nonessential worker may feel a little more helpless and unproductive than usual, there’s no better time to swap traditional hamburgers with Beyonds and Impossibles. Going vegetarian for just one month can abate a full 224 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions from your carbon footprint!

Carbon abatement presents just one of the many environmental benefits attributed to plant-based diets. Beyond reducing the pollution, deforestation, and habitat destruction caused by animal agriculture, changing what we eat holds immense opportunity to conserve valuable environmental resources. Agriculture uses 40% of land area and consumes over 70% of usable water, in addition to emitting about 30% of global emissions.

Producing a serving of plant-based food has an environmental impact ten to 100 times lower than that of a portion of red meat when measured by emissions, land use, acidification, and eutrophication. And in terms of energy efficiency, eating meat is society’s greatest inefficiency: for every 100 calories of crops fed to animals, we can produce only three calories of beef.

Plant-based lifestyles also hold incredible implications for social equity, health benefits, and ethical treatment of animals — three hot topics amid coronavirus’s global spread.

Reallocating agricultural land from cattle to poultry feed, for example, would meet the caloric and protein needs of 120 to 140 million more people. Reallocating that same land to produce crops for direct human consumption would feed an additional 190 million. That’s equivalent to 60% of the entire U.S. population. And considering the 820 million who suffer from lack of food worldwide, we raise our capacity to feed almost 25% of the hungry just by transitioning our agricultural resources to serve plant-based diets.

A plant-based diet also delivers incredible personal health benefits. Red and processed meat consumption increases the risk of several health complications, from heart disease to type 2 diabetes to cancer. Numerous studies (like these from Northwestern and Harvard) have found meat partially causal to premature death; Oxford scientists link the addition of 50 grams (two bacon strips) of processed red meat to the average diet with a 41% higher probability of dying within the year. Especially for adult Americans with cholesterol problems (not looking at anyone in particular, Dad), eating more plant-based meals can offer huge health benefits.

The conditions of livestock in factory farms is also an important factor to consider. In a time where we’re thinking a lot more about diseases communicable between animals, we eliminate so much unknown risk if we don’t have to worry about the high-density conditions of cattle and chickens in factory farms. The COVID-19 pandemic marks a pivotal opportunity to curb consumption of red meat especially: a major driver of species extinction, ecosystem destruction, and disease spread.

Perhaps most importantly, a plant-based diet is undoubtedly the most ethical mainstream diet. Regardless of your beliefs, it’s a great feeling not having to trust that your local factory farm treats your hamburger right (because they probably don’t).

Up to the quarantine challenge? Check here for some incredible low-cost vegetarian recipes (featuring all-time favorites from “Roasted Cauliflower Taco Bowls” to “Chocolate Depression Cake”). Including amazing plant-based substitutes like the Beyond Burger and JUST egg are fun to try and make the transition feel seamless.

Already vegetarian? Challenge yourself to a month of veganism! Switching to an entirely plant-based diet from vegetarianism abates almost a third of a ton of CO2e annually from your dietary carbon footprint. Whether you choose to go full vegan or just cut back on a few servings of meat a week, your choice to live a more plant-based lifestyle makes an impact.

If you take up the challenge, spread the word get your friends and family involved! Your impact multiplies with every person you share your goal with. And when we get back to campus, there's a Clover Beyond meatball sandwich waiting for you on me. 

Methodology: Switching from high-meat consumption to a vegetarian diet cuts dietary emissions from 7.19 to 3.81 kilograms of CO2e per day. If you went vegetarian for a full year, it would abate over a full ton of emissions! See calculations here!

A quick disclaimer: Americans eat more meat on average than any other OECD country. As a result, this is an extremely conservative estimate, because the average American eats more than twice the amount of meat (276 g/day) than the study's highest available meat-eating category (100 g/day) used in the calculations. If you eat meat like a typical American omnivore, taking up the challenge will abate way more than 224 tons CO2e from your carbon footprint!