How Much Does Being Vegan Reduce my Carbon Footprint By?
Updated: Aug 14
With regular headlines highlighting devastating environmental news, it is clear that something needs to change - but how much does being vegan really reduce our carbon footprints?
We will explore how much of your carbon footprint comes from your diet and how you can live more sustainably.
Spoiler: some vegans still have a huge carbon footprint.
What is your carbon footprint?
A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions, such as:
Because our diet is such a significant part of our lives, it is also a significant part of our carbon footprint. Sometimes this is known as your carbon "foodprint". Your foodprint is the environmental impact of your food.
Diet and your carbon footprint
The food that we consume has a large impact on our environment. The impact varies significantly between different diets. The UK business secretary is considering a “full vegan diet” to help tackle climate change, saying people will need to make lifestyle changes if the government is to meet its new emissions target of a 78% reduction on 1990 levels by 2035.
So, with that being said - how much does going vegan reduces your carbon footprint?
Going Vegan could reduce an individual's carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent, researchers at the University of Oxford found. This is due to the volumes of food which must be fed to livestock before it goes through the energy-intensive process of being killed, processed, transported and stored. All of which create greenhouse gasses that directly contribute to your carbon footprint.
The meat and dairy industry’s carbon footprint
The dairy industry is widely known to have some awful consequences on the environment. A study run by Climatic Change analysed the difference in environmental impact between those who were vegan, vegetarian, fish eaters and meat-eaters. The diets of 2,041 vegans, 15,751 vegetarians, 8,123 fish-eaters and 29,589 meat-eaters aged 20–79 were analysed.
The highest dietary greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were found in high meat-eating men and the lowest dietary GHG emissions were found in vegan women. The mean observed values of dietary GHG emissions for meat-eaters (results reported for women and then men) were 46 % and 51 % higher than for fish-eaters, 50 % and 54 % higher than for vegetarians and 99 % and 102 % higher than for vegans. Going vegan, therefore, reduces your dietary greenhouse gas emissions hugley.
Dietary GHG emissions in meat-eaters are approximately twice as high as those in vegans.
Red meat (such as beef, lamb and pork) production normally generates 23% of agriculture-related greenhouse gases. Emission per unit of livestock product varies with animal types. Greenhouse emission is much greater for ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep and dairy than for pigs or poultry. It is estimated that about 44% of total global methane emissions are from livestock and that the output is dominated by beef production.
On average, 43 kg of greenhouse gases are released during the production of each kg of beef. Of this 43 kg, approximately 22 kg are methane emissions. This result does not include the greenhouse gases from the beef carcass. Methane is much more damaging to the environment than CO2 emissions.
Another study, published by the prestigious science journal Nature, shows that beef production requires 42 times more land use, 2 times more water use, 4 times more nitrogen, and generates 3 times more GHG emissions than the staple plant foods per gram of protein.
While considering the carbon footprint curated through a non-vegan diet, it is extremely important to consider methane. Cows produce a lot of methane. This is a powerful climate-altering gas, which over 20 years are 84 times worse than CO2.
The United Nations states that methane has a much higher warming potential than C02 and that its atmospheric volumes are continuously replenished making effective methane management a potentially important element in countries’ climate change mitigation strategies. With 60% of global methane emissions coming from human activities and 27% of this coming from animal agriculture it is clear how much of a positive impact following a vegan diet has.
It is not only the methane that they produce which is the problem with dairy cows. The second problem is that there are just so many of them. There are 270 million cows who have been bred into existence for their milk. Because of methane emissions and other climate-destroying processes, the 13 largest dairy firms in the world have been found to have the same combined greenhouse gas emissions as the whole of the United Kingdom.
Are vegan foods always better for the environment?
Many studies suggest that being vegan is one of the best things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint. But being vegan does not always have a lower carbon footprint. Vegan foods are not always better for the environment for 3 reasons:
The transport of the food
The volume of food required
The growing methods used.
A large part of plant-based diets consists of fruits and vegetables. Not all fruits and vegetables are the same - they can have dramatically different carbon footprints depending on how they were grown and transported. Whether they are produced in heated greenhouses or not has a huge effect on their GHG emissions.
Locally grown and sold fruits and vegetables are often assumed to be more environmentally friendly. However, it has been shown that this might not be the case. A study shows that when customers in the UK choose to drive more than 7.4 km to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables, the GHG emissions would be higher than if a large-scale delivery system transported the food closer to the customer.
Contrary to what many people think, there are often lower emissions from food grown abroad and transported to the UK than food produced locally. This is because the energy used to grow the food in unsustainable ways, such as in heated greenhouses rather than a naturally warm climate, leads to lots of wasted energy and a higher carbon footprint.
This can be combated by eating a seasonal diet, foods that are grown locally in sustainable ways and that are suitable for the local climate.
Some authors would suggest that 100% plant-based food consumers may need larger volumes of food than vegetarians to achieve the same energy intake. Larger volumes of food, therefore, incorporate larger carbon footprints.
A vegan diet also often heavily uses foods that do not have a positive effect on the environment, such as avocados, mushrooms, almonds and cashew nuts.
In conclusion, the greenhouse gases created through the food in which we eat plays a significant part for climate change and may represent a real threat to our planet. A study estimates that meat and dairy production processes account for 80% of all GHG emissions from the food sector and 24% of total GHGs. Meat and cheese production contributes around 40% to daily GHGs.
Going Vegan could reduce an individual's carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent, a University of Oxford study found. However, carbon footprints from vegan diets vary and you need to make sure that all the food you consume is produced as locally as possible in order to truly reduce your carbon footprint.
Going vegan significantly reduces your carbon footprint - much more than many other actions you can take. You do not need to be a ‘perfect vegan’, every little help. If you do not want to go fully vegan, it is worth looking at campaigns such as meatless monday or Veganuary.
There are also several other things that you can do which are not related to your diet at all and often have a much bigger positive impact.
Are you vegan? Would you consider going vegan? Let us know on Instagram @zerosmartuk.