Study: Shifting to Plant-Based Diets Can Cut Global Emissions and Capture CO2

This new approach to eating in high-income nations would slash more than half of all greenhouse gas emissions.
By Paolo DeAndreis
Jan. 12, 2022 10:47 UTC

Lowering the con­sump­tion of meat is one of the ways in which coun­tries can lower their green­house gas emis­sions and sequester more car­bon, accord­ing to a study recently pub­lished in Nature Food.

We don’t have to be purists about this. Even just cut­ting ani­mal intake would be help­ful.- Paul Behrens, envi­ron­men­tal researcher, Leiden University

Reducing meat-based diets in the most devel­oped coun­tries could slash up to 100 bil­lion tons of green­house gas emis­sions, about one-tenth of total global emis­sions, accord­ing to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Shifting to plant-based diets would also mean that large stretches of land cur­rently used for live­stock graz­ing and food grow­ing for live­stock con­sump­tion could become new car­bon-seques­ter­ing nat­ural farms.

In turn, this would pro­vide an addi­tional avenue for coun­tries to ful­fill the car­bon diox­ide reduc­tion goals ini­tially laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement.

See Also:Climate Change Coverage

According to the researchers, a major shift in nutri­tional habits in 54 coun­tries that rep­re­sent 68 per­cent of the global gross domes­tic prod­uct (GDP) and 17 per­cent of the global pop­u­la­tion could reduce their annual food pro­duc­tion emis­sions by 61 per­cent.

Previous stud­ies have shown that emis­sions con­nected to ani­mal-based food pro­duc­tion are at least twice as high as those deriv­ing from crop pro­duc­tion for human con­sump­tion.

Now, sci­en­tists are focussing on the role devel­oped coun­tries can play in this shift since peo­ple in these coun­tries gen­er­ally have access to a wider choice of food prod­ucts.

We looked at higher income regions because they have plenty of plant-based options for pro­tein and other nutri­tional needs,” Paul Behrens, the lead author of the study and a researcher at Leiden University, wrote. In lower-income regions, peo­ple con­sume fewer ani­mal pro­teins but often rely on them for their health.”

According to the study, the rever­sion of agri­cul­tural lands used to raise and feed live­stock to their nat­ural state would allow the coun­tries in which they are located to sequester 14-years worth of agri­cul­tural car­bon diox­ide emis­sions until nat­ural veg­e­ta­tion matures.

Current research has shown that the abil­ity of veg­e­ta­tion and forests to sequester car­bon may pro­gres­sively slow down as plants mature.

It’s a remark­able oppor­tu­nity for cli­mate mit­i­ga­tion,” Behrens wrote. But it would also have mas­sive ben­e­fits for water qual­ity, bio­di­ver­sity, air pol­lu­tion and access to nature, to name just a few.”

There are hun­dreds of papers show­ing how impor­tant it is for us to be in nature for our health and these changes would open up vast tracts of land for rewil­d­ing close to where peo­ple live,” he added.

Behrens believes that gov­ern­ments should sub­si­dize farm­ers to pro­tect bio­di­ver­sity and sequester car­bon.

Researchers have con­sid­ered the impact of shift­ing away from meat-based diets by com­par­ing them to the EAT-Lancet plan­e­tary diet, a sci­en­tific review of what con­sti­tutes a healthy diet in a sus­tain­able food pro­duc­tion sys­tem extended to the global pop­u­la­tion.

Vegetables con­sti­tute the most sig­nif­i­cant part of that diet, with only a frac­tion of the pro­teins deriv­ing from ani­mal food. In such a diet, fats are con­sumed in the form of plant oils, such as olive oil.

The inter­na­tional team of researchers also noted that even just reduc­ing the cur­rent ani­mal food intake in the rich nations by 50 per­cent would bring great ben­e­fits.

We don’t have to be purists about this. Even just cut­ting ani­mal intake would be help­ful,” Behrens con­cluded. Imagine if half of the pub­lic in richer regions cut half the ani­mal prod­ucts in their diets. You’re still talk­ing about a mas­sive oppor­tu­nity in envi­ron­men­tal out­comes and pub­lic health.”


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