ANN ARBOR, Mich.April 30, 2020 — New research released by the University of Michigan and Tulane University today found that replacing 50% of animal products with plant-based foods in the United States would prevent more than 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution by 2030.
If beef consumption were reduced by 90% alongside the 50% reduction in other animal products, it would prevent more than 2 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution. That’s roughly equivalent to taking nearly half the world’s cars off the roads for a year.
The Center for Biological Diversity, which supported this research, has released a policy guide for decision-makers at the federal, state and local levels to advance the dietary shifts needed to meet emissions-reduction goals.
“Moving the American appetite from our burger-heavy diet to plant-based eating is a powerful and necessary part of curbing the climate crisis,” said Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the Center. “The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the meat supply chain’s vulnerabilities, but our food system faces even greater long-term threats from climate change. We desperately need policymakers to support sustainable diets and a resilient food system.”
Today’s study, Implications of Future U.S. Diet Scenarios on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, found that replacing half of all animal-based foods with plant-based alternatives would reduce diet-related emissions by 35%. And if half of all animal-based foods were replaced with plant-based alternatives and beef consumption fell by 90%, dietary emissions would drop by 51%. If American diets remain unchanged, emissions associated with producing the food we eat will climb 9% by 2030.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that the world has under 10 years to reduce global emission by half to avoid the worst impacts of catastrophic climate change. Last year the IPCC warned that food systems are already being adversely affected by climate disruption and identified dietary shifts as a solution for mitigation and adaptation. Previous research has shown that society will be unable to meet global climate targets without reducing meat and dairy consumption and production.
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“While diet shift isn’t a silver bullet, it could play an important role in curbing climate change,” said Martin Heller, lead author of the study and research specialist at University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems at the School for Environment and Sustainability. “Plus, it’s an actionable strategy at all levels, from consumers to the food industry to local, state and national policy.”
The Center’s policy guide — Appetite for Change: A Policy Guide to Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions of U.S. Diets by 2030 — outlines key actions that can be taken at all levels of government. Those include shifting procurement toward plant-based purchases, creating food-policy councils, ending subsidies and bailouts that encourage overproduction of animal products, and incorporating sustainability into federal nutrition recommendations. The Trump administration is currently revising the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“We can’t ignore that public health, sustainability, climate resilience and food security are all part of the same recipe,” Feldstein said. “Our government has a responsibility to make healthy, climate-friendly foods more accessible to all Americans, and that starts with the dietary guidelines.”