The Single Best Way to Reduce Our Carbon Footprint

We all want to do our part to reverse the environmental damage that the modern lifestyle has wrought upon the earth. Many of us go out of our way to follow lists prepared by experts to help us reduce our ecological footprint. Here is a sample list graciously prepared by Georgetown University:

Take the Stairs

Shut the windows when the heat or AC is on

Take shorter showers

Keep your room temp at a moderate setting

Only do full loads of laundry

Cut down your number of appliances

Switch off the lights

Switch to CFL bulbs

Unplug electronics when not in use

What few people realize is that the greatest change that you can make in your ecological footprint does not involve the choices you make about your use of electricity at all. It involves the choices you make about what you eat. As Movie Director, and Environmental Activist James Cameron has said, “This may surprise you, because it surprised me when I found out, but the single biggest thing that an individual can do to combat climate change is to stop eating animals.”

According to a survey, mentioned in a  New York Times Article (Stephanie Strom “Americans Ate 19% Less Beef From ’05 to ’14, Report Says”), nineteen percent of the Americans surveyed claimed that they were now eating less meat. Of those making such a claim, a third said that they were eating less meat because of the rising price of meat. A quarter said that they were eating less meat for health reasons. Not one of the surveyed people claimed to be eating less meat for environmental reasons. Few people are yet aware of the impact that meat and dairy production have on the environment. Yet, there is not a single thing that you can do in your home to help protect the environment than eating less meat and dairy.

To produce a cup of rice, broccoli, or eggplant takes one sixteenth as much fuel as it does to produce six ounces of beef steak, according to a study by Gidon Eshel and Pamela A. Martin (“Diet, Energy, and Global Warming”, Earth Interaction, Vol 10 [2006], paper No. 9). In the same study, they found that production of the six ounce beef steak created twenty-five times the carbon dioxide emissions that production of the vegetables did. Eating meat consumes sixteen times as much fuel, and causes twenty-five times more CO2 production!

If we compare the change to a vegan diet with the usual suspects, such as in the Georgetown University list above, we can see precisely how much savings we are talking about. Cutting two minutes off of your shower time each day will save 183.6 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. While it is difficult to know how much difference will be made when doing a full load as opposed to a partial load, it is much easier to calculate how much is saved by switching to cold water, instead of warm or hot water washing. Using cold water to wash your clothes saves 162 pounds of CO2 per year. Taking stairs will, of course, vary wildly depending on how often and how many floors you need to traverse. One writer estimated that by taking the stairs up to his third floor office each working day, over three months time he would save a mere 168 grams (not kilograms). As he says, “in no way a substantial saving.” On the other hand, going vegan will save 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide per year. That’s right we’re talking one and a half tons compared to a handful of pounds or even grams. Changing your diet is really the most substantial change that you can make to avert global warming.

But, of course, so far we have only considered energy use and carbon dioxide production. Giving up meat and dairy have impacts that go beyond the substantial savings in energy and reduction of greenhouse gases. By changing to a plant-based diet, we can drastically reduce deforestation, overuse of water, pollution of our waterways, ocean dead zones, destruction of our soils, overgrazing of our forests and prairies, and the mass extinctions that these devastating actions are causing. There is really nothing you can do that will have a greater impact on the environment.

As Stephanie Feldstein, of the Center for Biological Diversity has said, “We can’t ignore the devastating impact of meat consumption on our climate and our planet anymore. The IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] report shows that our appetite for meat is not only harming the environment, but is a threat to a livable climate for people and wildlife around the globe. We need to drastically reduce the amount of meat in our diets if we hope to fight climate change and the extinction crisis.” It really is as simple as that. If you want to have the largest impact that you can have toward saving the environment, you must give up meat and dairy.

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