A carbon footprint is historically defined as the total set of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by an individual, event, organization, or product, expressed as carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent.  

The magnitude of individual or personal carbon footprints is dictated by the frequency of what kind of car you drive or public transportation you take, where do you fly or cruise, what kind of home energy you use to heat your house, and what kind of animal products you consume. For instance, the average American’s carbon footprints per person per year in 2014 was 21.5 metric tons CO2 according to the University of Michigan. This is an increase of 7 percent in 25 years. It remains the highest in the world since industrialization, but the picture is not uniform across the country or even within a region.

In other words, the average personal carbon footprints differ from place to place or country to country. According to the World Bank, the Canadian average carbon footprints per person per year increased from 10.8 in 1960 to 15.1 metric tons CO2 in 2014 whereas the UK’s average carbon footprints per person per year decreased from 11.2 to 6.5 metric tons CO2 in 2014.

The good news is that there are ways to reduce the personal carbon footprints by modifying individual life style including the diet. For instance, not consuming animal products helps reduce the personal carbon foot prints.

Here is a fact, meat and dairy provide just 18 percent of calories and 37 percent of protein but it uses the vast majority, 83 percent, of farmland and produces 60 percent of agriculture’s GHG emissions. Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75 percent – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.

Furthermore, farms contribute to water pollution in a range of ways. The types of water pollution include:

  • Nutrient (Nitrogen and Phosphorus from fertilizers and animal excreta);
  • Pesticides;
  • Sediment;
  • Organic Matter (Oxygen demanding substances such as plant matter and livestock excreta);
  • Pathogens (E coli etc.);
  • Metals (Selenium etc.); and
  • Emerging Pollutants (drug residues, hormones and feed additives).

Some of those pollutions are associated more closely with arable farming, and some with livestock, but it’s worth remembering that one-third of the world’s grain is now fed to animals. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the livestock sector which is growing and intensifying faster than crop production, has “Serious Implications” for water quality.

The impacts are wide-reaching. Eutrophication is caused by excesses of nutrients and organic matter which cause algae and plants to grow excessively and use up all the oxygen in the body of water at the expense of other species. A review identified 415 coastal bodies already suffering these problems. Pesticide pollution can kill weeds and insects away from the agricultural area, with impacts that may be felt all the way up the food chain. And although scientists do not yet have full data on the connection between antibiotic use in animals and rising levels of antibiotic resistance in the human population, water pollution by antibiotics (which continue to have an active life even after going through the animal and into the water) is definitely in the frame.

An influential study in 2010 of the water footprints for meat estimated that while vegetables had a footprint of about 322 litres per kg, and fruits drank up 962 litres per kg, meat consumed far more. For instance:

  • Chicken came in at 4,325 l/kg, pork at 5,988 l/kg, sheep/goat meat at 8,763 l/kg, and beef at a stupendous 15,415 l/kg;
  • Some non-meat products were also pretty eye-watering: and
  • Nuts came in at 9,063 l/kg.

To put these figures into context: the planet faces growing water constraints as the freshwater reservoirs and aquifers dry up. On some estimates farming accounts for about 70 percent of water used in the world today but a 2013 study found that it uses up to 92 percent of our freshwater, with nearly one-third of that related to animal products.

Recent findings published in the journal of Science by researchers at Oxford University and the Swiss agricultural research institute, Agroscope, have created the most comprehensive database yet on the environmental impacts of nearly 40,000 farms, and 1,600 processors, packaging types, and retailers. This allows them to assess how different production practices and geographies lead to different environmental impacts for 40 major foods.

Accordingly, it indicates that agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems. Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.

According to the United Nation Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources:

  • “With grazing land and cropland dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80 percent of all agricultural land. Feed crops are grown in one-third of total cropland, while the total land area occupied by pasture is equivalent to 26 percent of the ice-free terrestrial surface”.

These researchers found large differences in environmental impact between producers of the same product, for instance:

  • High-impact beef producers create 105 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents and use 370 m2 of land per 100 grams of protein, a huge 12 and 50 times (1100 and 4900 percent) greater than low-impact beef producers; and
  • Low-impact beans, peas, and other plant-based proteins can create just 0.3 kg of CO2 equivalents (including all processing, packaging, and transport), and use just 1m2 of land per 100 grams of protein.

According to FAO, the total GHG emissions from livestock supply chains are estimated at 7.1 gigatons CO2 equivalent per annum. Here is the configuration of commodity contribution with highest GHG emissions:

  • Beef 41 Percent;
  • Cattle Milk 20 Percent;
  • Pig Meat 9 Percent;
  • Buffalo Milk 8 Percent;
  • Chicken Meat 8 Percent;
  • Small Ruminant Milk 6 Percent; and
  • Other Poultry Species and Non-edible products 8 Percent

Here is another fact. A new scale and scope of damage, particularly for beef, the popular red meat requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. When compared to staples like potatoes, wheat, and rice, the impact of beef per calorie is even more extreme, requiring 160 times more land and producing 11 times more GHG gases.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to work out exactly what quantity of GHG is emitted by the meat industry from farm to fork; carbon emissions are not officially counted along entire chains in that way, and so a number of complicated studies and calculations have attempted to fill the gap.

According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture, forestry and other land use accounts for 24 percent of GHG. Attempts to pick out the role of animal farming within that have come up with a huge range of numbers, from 6-32 percent: the difference, according to the Meat Atlas, “depends on the basis of measurement”. Should it just be livestock, or should it include a whole lot of other factors? Different models of farming have different levels of emissions: this has generated an energetic discussion around extensive versus intensive farming, and regenerative farming – a model that aims to combine technologies and techniques to regenerate soils and biodiversity levels while also sequestrating carbon.

It is not easy to separate out the contribution that meat production makes to this – particularly globally. The FAO states that livestock is about 40 percent of the global value of agricultural output and supports the livelihoods and food security of almost a 1.3 billion people.

Food and farming is one of the biggest economic sectors in the world as farming employs more than 26 percent of all workers globally. And that does not include the people who work along the meat supply chain: the slaughterers, packagers, retailers and chefs.

In 2016, the world’s meat production was estimated at 317m metric tons, and that is expected to continue to grow. Figures for the value of the global meat industry vary wildly from $90bn to as much as $741bn.

At the same time, the giant companies that dominate the sector, a 2017 landmark study found that the top three meat firms – JBS, Cargill and Tyson – emitted more GHG in 2016 than all of France.

Nevertheless, Marco Springmann, at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford, said: “Current levels of meat consumption are not healthy or sustainable. The costs associated with each of those impacts could approach the trillions in the future. Taxing meat could be a first and important step.”

A new analysis from the investor network Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (Fairr) Initiative argues that meat is therefore now following the same path as tobacco, carbon emissions and sugar towards a sin tax, a levy on harmful products to cut consumption. Meat taxes have already been discussed in parliaments in Germany, Denmark and Sweden, the analysis points out, and China’s government has cut its recommended maximum meat consumption by 45 percent in 2016.

The first global analysis of meat taxes done in 2016 found levies of 40 percent on beef, 20 percent on dairy products and 8.5 percent on chicken would save half a million lives a year and slash climate warming emissions. Proposals in Denmark suggested a tax of $2.70 per kilogram of meat.

According to an article published in the Guardian: “If policymakers are to cover the true cost of human epidemics like obesity, diabetes and cancer, and livestock epidemics like avian flu, while also tackling the twin challenges of climate change and antibiotic resistance, then a shift from subsidization to taxation of the meat industry looks inevitable,” said Jeremy Coller, the founder of Fairr.

Maria Lettini, director of Fairr, said: “As implementation of the Paris climate agreement progresses we’re highly likely to see government action to reduce the environmental impact of the global livestock sector. On the current pathway we may well see some form of meat tax emerge within five to 10 years.”

Nations begin to implement sin taxes as consensus forms over the harm caused by the product, the analysis notes, and today more than 180 jurisdictions tax tobacco, more than 60 tax carbon emissions, and at least 25 tax sugar.

Meat taxes are often seen as politically impossible but research by Chatham House in 2015 found they are far less unpalatable to consumers than governments think. It showed people expect governments to lead action on issues that are for the global good, but that awareness of the damage caused by the livestock industry is low. Using meat tax revenues to subsidize healthy foods is one idea touted to reduce opposition.

“It’s only a matter of time before agriculture becomes the focus of serious climate policy,” said Rob Bailey at Chatham House. “The public health case will likely strengthen government resolve, as we have seen with coal and diesel. It’s hard to imagine concerted action to tax meat today, but over the course of the next 10 to 20 years, I would expect to see meat taxes accumulate.”

“There are huge opportunities in the market,” said Lettini. “If we can start replacing meat protein with plant-based protein that has the same look, taste and feel as meat, where real red-blooded meat eaters are happy to dig into a burger that is plant-based, we are changing the world.”

At the same time, some argue that veganism is the only sane way forward. A study last year showed, for example, that if all Americans substituted beans for beef, the country would be close to meeting the greenhouse gas goals agreed by Barack Obama.

It’s widely recognized that a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just GHG, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car, as these only cut GHG gas emissions.

There are some alternatives for those who are really interested in participating. For instance, reducing the amount of meat you eat while improving its quality is advocated by many environmental groups. But where do you find this meat? The organic movement was founded on the pioneering work of Sir Alfred Howard. It is still relatively small – in Europe 5.7 percent of agricultural land is managed organically – but influential.

The researchers also indicated that we can take advantage of variable environmental impacts to access a second scenario. Reducing consumption of animal products by 50 percent by avoiding the highest-impact producers achieves 73 percent of the plant-based diet’s GHG emission reduction for example. Furthermore, lowering consumption of discretionary products (oils, alcohol, sugar, and stimulants) by 20 percent by avoiding high-impact producers reduces the GHG emissions of these products by 43 percent.

Prof Tim Benton, at the University of Leeds, said “The biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would be not to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat.”

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada – 8 August 2018