Written by Taylor Mogavero, Program Coordinator
I recently came across an article that claimed that the most effective way someone can cut their individual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is by eating a plant-based diet. A plant-based diet means one does not consume any animal products, including red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products. The post stated:
Adopting a plant-based diet can cut more emissions than making *all* of these changes:
- Installing solar panels on your home
- Switching to an electric vehicle (or public transit)
- Composting all of your food scraps
- Reducing your plastic use
From Vox on Instagram
That got me wondering, is this true? Is our diet really more impactful than driving an electric vehicle or installing solar panels? Clean energy is so popular among our climate goals that I was shocked. Why would we be talking about phasing out gas and installing heat pumps or putting solar panels on every roof (both very great and necessary goals) if diet was also an important factor?
So, I wanted to investigate this claim.
First, I found strong evidence that if many people adapted a more plant-based diet, it would greatly reduce GHG emissions. The Drawdown Project named a “plant-rich diet” as the second biggest action to reduce GHG emissions (for Scenario 1). They calculated that if 50–75% of people reduced meat consumption to 57 grams per day, at least 54.19–78.48 gigatons of emissions could be avoided by 2050 from dietary change alone. That’s an incredible impact!
Looking for emissions per person, how much GHG emissions does an individual cut by not eating animal products? One study conducted on over 55,000 people showed that diets that include high meat-eaters (eating 100 grams of meat per day – about the size of your palm) produced 15.8 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents per day (lbCO2e/day). Those who don’t eat meat (vegetarians) produce 8.4 lbCO2e/day and those who do not eat any animal products (vegans) produce 6.4 lbCO2e/day. That means if one person cut out animal products for their diet, then every year they would produce 3,431 pounds of CO2e less than a meat eater.
But what about the GHG emissions that are “saved” for installing solar panels or switching to an electric vehicle?
I looked at several different solar panel companies to see how many pounds of CO2e were reduced by installing solar panels, and I did not find consistent answers. Companies claim you save anywhere from 8,000 to 15,000 pounds of CO2e per year by switching to solar for your home. That’s probably not factoring in how much CO2e is released when producing and manufacturing the solar panels. For a more reliable answer, I asked a friend how much CO2e their solar panel system saved. According to their system, 1.5 lbs of CO2e are saved for every kilowatt hour (kWh) produced. The average amount of energy consumed by the average American household per year is 10,632 kWh. That means only using energy from solar panels will save 15,948 pounds of CO2e per year for the average household. That’s a huge number, but it is for a whole household, not an individual. The average person per household is 3 people, so we can approximate and say each individual is saving 5,316 pounds of CO2e per year (but this is by no means an accurate number since there is a base energy use per household regardless of how many people live there).
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average gasoline-powered car produces 12,954 pounds of CO2e per year while an electric-powered car produces 2,817 pounds of CO2e per year. That means one electric vehicle saves on average 10,137 pounds of CO2e per year (or 11,579 miles). According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, bus transit produces ⅔ of the CO2e produced by personal vehicles. That means using the bus instead of driving a car would save 8,636 pounds of CO2e per year (compared to driving 11,579 miles and producing 12,954 pounds of CO2e).
Let’s sum it up.
- Eating a plant-based diet: saves 3,431 pounds of CO2e per year
- Using solar energy: saves 15,948 pounds of CO2e per year per household
- Driving an electric vehicle: saves 10,137 pounds of CO2e per year
- Taking the bus: saves 8,636 pounds of CO2e per year
Disclaimer: These numbers are only an approximation from the sources I found. Everyone’s GHG emissions will vary depending on your activity, consumption, and where you live.
According to my results, eating a plant-based diet is indeed a great way to reduce GHG emissions, though some evidence suggests it may not be the largest GHG emissions reduction an individual can do. There are several other factors to consider of course. As Project Drawdown calculated, plant-rich diets on a mass scale have incredible effects. Not eating meat conserves land and water resources since they can be used directly for edible crops instead of growing grain for feed and housing the animals. Less land being used means deforestation is reduced and biodiversity is preserved. Less animals also means less pollution from intensive livestock farming and a reduction in energy consumption. It is no argument that eating a plant-based diet is extremely beneficial for our environment.
Now let’s talk about the other GHG reducing solutions discussed. While it is great to install solar panels or buy an electric vehicle, that’s not a solution that is accessible for everyone. The average cost for a 6-watt solar panel system in California is $17,160. One of the least expensive electric vehicles costs around $26,600 (Chevrolet Bolt) and other electric vehicles can cost well over $100,000! (Taking the bus is a win-win solution, it’s much cheaper than having a car and saves GHG emissions, so I highly recommend taking public transit!). If you have the means, I definitely encourage the purchase of these items. But solar panels and electric vehicles are way over hyped. They are seen as the solution to fix all, when really what we need is multiple ways to lower our GHG emissions. Considering all of this, I would dare say that eating plant-based is the easiest and least expensive way to reduce your GHG emissions.
You have complete control over what you eat and you can literally start right now. There’s nothing easier and more convenient than that. Also, meat, milk, and eggs are expensive. You will save thousands of dollars every year by switching meat for a plant-based protein! As of writing this, one pound of chicken costs $5.99 while one pound of lentils costs $1.99 at Safeway. Americans consume around 274 pounds of meat per year on average. Let’s say all of that was chicken and you switched it all to lentils, just one person would save $1,096 every year! Switching from beef, pork, or lamb to a plant-based protein would save even more money than that.
You don’t have to switch to a complete vegan diet though. Every action counts. Everytime you pass on an animal product and eat a plant-based one instead, you are reducing your gas emissions. Here is a great graph depicting that from the Vox article I mentioned previously:
By eating less animal products, less animals are raised. Fewer animals means fewer GHG emissions and pollution are produced. Also, less water, food, and land are needed to raise these animals and the resources can go straight to growing crops for human consumption.
If you want to explore a more plant-based diet, but don’t want to completely commit to being vegan, try being a weekday vegetarian. What this means is you don’t eat meat Monday-Friday, but on Saturday and Sunday you can eat what you feel like. This is a great way to dramatically reduce your meat consumption and GHG emissions, while not having to “sacrifice” any foods.
Overall, there are many ways an individual can reduce their GHG emissions. A plant-based diet, installing solar panels, driving an electric vehicle or taking the bus are all great options. While individual action is often emphasized, we need nation-wide, systematic change to make a sizable impact on the GHG emission the U.S. produces. We will not stay well below 2°C at this rate. Climate change is hitting us now and we need to act fast and effectively. I encourage everyone to reevaluate their lifestyle and reduce their emissions, but don’t forget we need to all be in this together to make a real change for the better.
Resources for eating plant-based: