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Diet for a low-carbon planet

Alan Miller's picture

Most of the proposed solutions to climate change such as substitution of fossil fuels require large investments, policies that are politically contentious or difficult to enforce, and years to fully implement. However, some of the most effective and lowest cost opportunities for greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions are lifestyle choices that can be made today that cost little, and that are actually good for us. Chief among them is the decision to adopt a healthier, less meat intensive diet. 

The significance of this opportunity was emphasized in a recent presentation at the World Bank by Jonathan Foley, director of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment. According to analysis by the Institute, every pound of meat is equivalent to about 30 pounds of grain production in its contribution to climate change when allowance is made for the full life cycle of livestock production. This is primarily because methane emissions from ruminants have a GHG impact roughly 25 times that of carbon dioxide.

Another expression of the resource intensity of meat production, Foley explained, is that even highly efficient agricultural systems like that in the US only deliver about the same calories per hectare in human consumption terms as poor African countries with more grain based diets. The surprisingly large role of livestock in global warming was explored in a 2009 article by Robert Goodland, formerly a World Bank economist, and Jeff Anhang, an IFC environmental specialist. They estimate that when land use and respiration are taken into account and methane effects are properly calculated, livestock could account for half of current warming when using a 20 year time-frame. According to Goodland and Anhang, replacing 25% of livestock products with alternatives would liberate as much as 40% of current world grain production with comparable benefits in reduced burdens on land, water, and other resources. 

A carbon footprinting tool for a cool climate

Daniel Kammen's picture

More and more people are interested in carbon emissions analysis and management. You can see this in the growth of awareness-raising campaigns to promote lower-carbon lifestyle choices, as well as voluntary carbon offset programs and proliferating  online household carbon footprint calculators. 

 

Now that interest is being harnessed at the community and country level. At the World Bank, partnerships for low-carbon communities are underway with over a dozen cities, as well as several countries. These include efforts to analyze carbon emissions profiles. At the city level, it’s the first step to prioritizing action to not only reduce emissions, but also deliver better services to the poor.

 

Calculators and tools help people understand the greenhouse gas benefits of effective climate action, but not all tools are created equal. A good calculator should be comprehensive and sophisticated, but also transparent and user-friendly. The best ones not only calculate emissions, but help people manage them.

 

One example is the CoolClimate Calculator which was developed by a team of students under my direction at the University of California, Berkeley. Chris Jones, Mia Yamauchi, Joe Kentenbacher, and Gang He, among others, developed the tool at the University of California, Berkeley. It measures carbon impacts of specific transportation choices and of energy use, but also includes impacts of water, waste, food, goods and services for both households and businesses. These indirect sources of emissions account for more than 50% of the total carbon footprint of the typical U.S. household.