Want to Easily Cut Your Carbon Footprint? Here's How
As a non-vegetarian and non-vegan with a lot of vegetarians and vegans in my life, I've heard many times that the benefits of plant-based eating go beyond personal health. But beyond what I've learned by watching "Food, Inc." a few times, I never knew the full meaning of that, nor what a meat-eater like myself can do short of giving up animal products entirely.
Katharine Hayhoe is a charismatic climate scientist with a big following. She hosts "Global Weirding," a PBS Digital Studios series produced by KTTZ Texas Tech Public Media that cleverly debunks the many myths surrounding climate change, delving into science, politics and even religion.
I chatted with Hayhoe about the real impact of going vegetarian and vegan, and if that’s the only way to stop climate change.
What's your footprint?
With years as a climatologist and a season of "Global Weirding" under her belt, Hayhoe said she's noticed patterns in the feedback she gets on her work.
"I get this all the time, I get people every week (saying), 'Why don't you tell people the real solution?'": that "eating lower down the food chain" and slowing population growth are the only ways to combat climate change, she said.
Population and diet do play a role in climate change, but "fixing" those things wouldn't be the silver bullet many make them out to be, Hayhoe said. It's a combination of factors that got us here, and it's a combination of solutions that will fix it.
"The fact is that it isn't so much number of people that matters, it's number of people living the lifestyle we do," she said.
The U.S. makes up about 5 percent of the earth's population, according to the U.S. Census, but is responsible for a third of carbon emissions since 1900, Hayhoe pointed out.
How much of that are you responsible for? You can run yourself through a carbon footprint calculator, like the University of California, Berkeley's Cool Climate calculator, to find out. Once your results are calculated, you'll be given a list of things you personally can do to reduce your carbon footprint.
"It's humbling and a bit scary to see those numbers for your own life," Hayhoe said. Without being aware of it, many of us are "living lifestyles that consume a disproportionate amount of our resources."
The thing is, each of us have different areas we can improve upon. For example, I drive to work while my coworker takes the bus. The footprint calculator challenged me to take public transportation or my bike more often.
"There are different levels of responsibility," Hayhoe said. "It is a tragedy of the commons which means each of us plays some part. ... We can't fix it as individuals, corporations can't fix it themselves, even entire countries can't fix it themselves."
A nuanced issue
Responsibility to change behavior also varies across the globe, she said. On the other hand, it wouldn't be responsible to go into a developing country and insist the population becomes vegan or vegetarian.
"If you've ever lived in a developing country, you know that veganism is a luxury of the developed world," Hayhoe said. "If you don't know where your food is coming from tomorrow, you're not going to stop to ask if your food is vegan, or even vegetarian."
An intersectional approach to climate change solutions is key, she said.
"We need to make sure that our solutions to climate change tackle the major issues that are causing suffering today—poverty, hunger, access to clean water, injustice," Hayhoe said. "When we look to climate solutions we need to recognize that marching into Bangladesh and saying, 'Oh, the solution is you need to go vegan' is not going to work."
But it's a different scenario for people living in the U.S.
"At the same time, for us here in North America, if we want to reduce our own personal carbon footprint, eating lower down the food chain is one of the most important things we can do," Hayhoe said.
Why does food matter?
Why is eating less meat better for the environment? Well, it has everything to do with how food animals are raised.
Factory-farmed beef is the biggest culprit for heat-trapping gas emissions, Hayhoe said. Factory farms are large-scale operations that pack many animals together into one space. The animals themselves produce significant methane gas—animal farming is responsible for 37 percent of all methane emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. On top of that, the corn the livestock is fed covers huge swaths of land and requires carbon-emitting machinery to harvest.
That might not seem like it would add up to much, but animal agriculture is responsible for 12 percent of Earth's heat-trapping gas emissions, Hayhoe said (pointing out that even eliminating the livestock industry would leave us with 88 percent of emissions to contend with— "it will not fix the entire problem"). According to the FAO, the livestock industry accounts for more emissions globally than transportation.
What can you do?
That's not to say that everyone can or should go vegetarian or vegan. Is there anything you can do to help if a plant-based diet won't work for you?
Most definitely, Hayhoe said.
"It's not a black-and-white, either-you-do-or-you-don't" thing, she said. "Every bit less meat you eat" helps, as does being mindful of the type of meat you consume.
While production of factory-farmed beef has the most impact on the environment, producing other types of meat is less of a strain on resources. Even "free-range beef is significantly less," she said. There's research going on right now to test the theory that, with "appropriate land and soil management, it might actually be possible for free-range beef to be very low-emission and possibly zero-emission."
Producing pork is less damaging to the environment than producing beef, Hayhoe said. Chicken is even less so. Fish farming carries the least environmental impact.
When it comes to dairy and eggs, "you have to have cows and you have to have chickens," she said, so there is an impact, "but not as much as raising the animal and raising it for meat. So, it's absolutely a sliding scale."
Knowing that there's grey area "usually helps people" incorporate more environmentally friendly eating habits into their lives, Hayhoe said.
You can try to go vegetarian one or two days a week (and increase from there if you end up enjoying it). You can eat vegetarian for breakfast and lunch and have meat for dinner. You can stop eating red meat, or become a pescatarian (a person who eats fish but not other kinds of meat). You can make sure to buy only free-range meat. There are lots of options, and you might find one that fits your life better than you expected.
"Every steak dinner you give up,... the lower on the food chain you go,... every little bit helps," Hayhoe said.
The most dangerous climate myth
In Hayhoe's mind, the most harmful climate change myth is not that it doesn't exist, but that it's a lost cause and what we do doesn't matter. She challenged me, and all of us, to start talking about what we're doing to combat climate change.
"The No. 1 thing we can do about a changing climate is talk about it," she said. "Studies showed that three-quarters of people in the United States don't even hear somebody else talk about it more than one or two times a year. ... If you're doing something to reduce your carbon footprint tell people about it."