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Cutting U.S. meat consumption by half would reduce emissions by 35% within decade

The gains are even bigger when beef is targeted specifically.

If every American reduced the amount of meat they eat by half, replacing it with plant-based products, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions would shrink by 1.6 billion metric tonnes by the year 2030. This is the conclusion of a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and Tulane University, titled “Implications of Future U.S. Diet Scenarios on Greenhouse Gas Emissions.”

The researchers examined the average American diet to figure out how much meat (specifically, red meat) is being consumed, and how much that represents in terms of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE). Then they made several projections:

(1) If the baseline diet remained unchanged until 2030
(2) If meat and poultry consumption increased, which is what the U.S. Department of Agriculture has predicted
(3) If consumption of all animal-based products were reduced by 50 percent and replaced with plant-based alternatives
(4) Same as no. 3, but if beef were cut by 90 percent, rather than 50.

Right now, the average American eats 133 pounds of red meat and poultry per year, which emits 5.0 kg CO2e per person daily. While red meat only comprises 9 percent of the calories available from this diet, it's responsible for 47 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by it. When all animal-based foods are considered, including red meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs, and animal-based fats, they represent 82 percent of the baseline diet's emissions. In other words, it's a hefty footprint that would only increase if scenario 2 played out; individuals' GHGE would increase to 5.14 kg CO2e per person per day.

Scenarios 3 and 4, however, offer a better approach. Replacing half of animal products with plants would mean a 35 percent decrease in emissions, shrinking carbon output to only 3.3 kg CO2e per person daily. Cutting beef to a mere 10 percent of the diet would mean only 2.4 kg CO2e emitted daily per person, as people would only be eating 50.1 pounds of meat and poultry per year.

Martin Heller, lead study author and researcher at the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems, said that diet “isn't a silver bullet,” but it could play an important role in curbing climate change.

“This research shows that replacing only half of our animal-based food consumption with plant-based alternatives could account for nearly a quarter of the reductions necessary for the U.S. to meet a Paris Agreement target” (despite the fact that the U.S. president has issued his intent to withdraw from the Agreement).

It's refreshing to see the power of reducetarianism upheld in a study. This is a movement I've written about numerous times on TreeHugger, centered around the idea that one does not have to make a radical lifestyle change by going vegetarian or vegan, but can make a difference by simply cutting back. Not only is this more realistic and attainable, but it can lead to incremental changes that increase over time. One vegetarian night per week can easily become two or three, once you've got some good recipes under your belt.

At a time when the meat production industry is becoming increasingly suspect, reducetarianism is all the more appealing. As I wrote last week, COVID-induced meat shortages will hopefully encourage people to experiment with plant-based eating, “whether spurred by necessity, a desire to save money, or a sense of disgust at the dirtiness of the meatpacking industry. First there was mad cow disease, then swine flu, and now this – more proof of the connection between meat consumption and infectious diseases. Combined with the sped-up processing lines and fewer safety inspections, eating industrially-raised meat is enough to make anyone squeamish.”

Individuals can – and should – commit to eating less meat at home, but a broader response is needed from all levels of government. The Center for Biological Diversity released a series of recommendations alongside the report that include “shifting procurement toward plant-based purchases, creating food policy councils, ending subsidies and bailouts that encourage overproduction of animal products, and incorporating sustainability into federal nutrition recommendations.” But, as with anything progressive pertaining to climate change, momentum needs to come from the bottom up, because policy-makers and leaders aren't going to make these changes unless they know that people want them badly – and that's going to start with the decisions you make at the grocery store this week.

Cutting U.S. meat consumption by half would reduce emissions by 35% within decade

The gains are even bigger when beef is targeted specifically.