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Climate change: Eating plants, not meat, could reduce 16-year carbon emissions by 2050

Switching from eating ‘land-hungry’ meat and dairy products to foods like beans, lentils and nuts could cut 16 years of CO2 emissions by 2050, expert said.

US researchers calculated that widespread adoption of such plant protein alternatives could free up land to support more ecosystems that absorb carbon.

Currently, about 83 percent of the world’s agricultural land is devoted to meat and dairy production, much of which produces only low yields.

Reducing this figure, the team said, is a better way to combat climate change than waiting for “ unproven ” large-scale technologies like atmospheric CO2 extractors.

Switching from eating 'land-hungry' meat and dairy products to foods like beans, lentils and nuts, pictured, could cut 16 years of CO2 emissions by 2050, expert says

Switching from eating ‘land-hungry’ meat and dairy products to foods like beans, lentils and nuts, pictured, could cut 16 years of CO2 emissions by 2050, expert says

“ The greatest potential for forest regrowth, and the climate benefits that this brings, exists in high and upper middle income countries, ” said New York University author and environmental scientist Matthew Hayek.

These, he added, are “places where cutting back on land-hungry meat and dairy products would have relatively minor impacts on food security.”

In their research, Professor Hayek and colleagues mapped the areas where land use for food production of animal origin has squeezed out native vegetation, such as forests.

This allowed the team to determine where a shift in our diet to more plant-based foods would allow natural ecosystems to be restored, offsetting global CO2 emissions in the process.

“We only mapped areas where seeds could naturally disperse, grow and multiply in dense, biodiverse forests and other ecosystems that remove carbon dioxide for us,” said Professor Hayek.

“Our results revealed more than 7 million square kilometers where forests would be wet enough to regrow and thrive naturally, collectively an area the size of Russia.”

The team concluded that – if the demand for land for meat production could be drastically reduced – the regrowth of vegetation in these locations could help sustain about 9-16 years of fossil fuel emissions by the middle of this century.

This would, in effect, double the planet’s so-called ‘carbon budget’ – the amount of fossil fuel emissions we can afford to release before we hit the 2.7 ° F (1.5 ° C) threshold temperature rise above pre- reach industrial level.

Exceeding this limit is expected to result in a significant increase in the number of serious impacts of climate change, including drought and sea level rise.

“We can think of shifting our eating habits to country-friendly diets as a complement to energy shifting, rather than as a substitute,” said Professor Hayek.

“Restoring native forests could give countries much-needed time to transition their energy networks to renewable, fossil-free infrastructure.”

Professor Hayek and his colleagues mapped areas of the world where land use for food production of animal origin has squeezed out native vegetation, such as forests. This allowed the team to determine where a shift in our diet to more plant-based foods would allow natural ecosystems to be restored and carbon from the atmosphere - as pictured above, with darker greens representing more carbon storage potential.

Professor Hayek and his colleagues mapped areas of the world where land use for food production of animal origin has squeezed out native vegetation, such as forests. This allowed the team to determine where a shift in our diet to more plant-based foods would allow natural ecosystems to be restored and carbon from the atmosphere - as pictured above, with darker greens representing more carbon storage potential.

Professor Hayek and his colleagues mapped areas of the world where land use for food production of animal origin has squeezed out native vegetation, such as forests. This allowed the team to determine where a shift in our diets to more plant-based foods would allow natural ecosystems to be restored and carbon removed from the atmosphere – as pictured above, with darker greens representing more carbon storage potential.

The findings could help locally targeted interventions, where appropriate, to help mitigate the effects of climate change, the team suggested.

“Land use is all about tradeoffs,” added author and ecosystem scientist Nathan Mueller of Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

“While the potential for ecosystem restoration is significant, extensive animal farming is culturally and economically important in many regions around the world.”

Ultimately, our findings could help target places where restoring ecosystems and halting ongoing deforestation would have the greatest carbon benefits.

Restoring natural ecosystems could have other benefits as well, the team said.

“Reduced meat production would also benefit water quality and quantity, habitat and wildlife biodiversity,” explains William Ripple of Oregon State University in Corvallis.

“We now know that intact, functioning ecosystems and suitable wildlife habitats help reduce the risk of pandemics,” added Harvard Law School author and environmental scientist Helen Harwatt.

“In combination with reduced livestock numbers, recovery reduces disease transmission from wild animals to pigs, chickens and cows, and ultimately to humans.”

The full findings of the study have been published in the journal Sustainability of nature.

HOW EATING MEAT AND MILK PRODUCTS CAN DAMAGE THE ENVIRONMENT

Eating meat, eggs and dairy products is harmful to the environment in several ways.

Cows, pigs and other farm animals release enormous amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Although there is less methane in the atmosphere than other greenhouse gases, it is about 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide at retaining heat.

Raising livestock also means converting forests to agricultural land, which means cutting down CO2-absorbing trees, further contributing to climate change. More trees are being felled to convert land into crops, as about a third of all grain produced in the world is used to feed animals raised for human consumption.

Factory farms and crop cultivation also require massive amounts of water, using 542 liters of water to produce just one chicken fillet.

In addition, the nitrogenous fertilizer that is used on crops contributes to the emission of laughing gas. Nitrous oxide is about 300 times more effective at retaining heat in the atmosphere. These fertilizers can also end up in rivers, which further increases pollution.

Overall, studies have shown that becoming a vegetarian can cut carbon emissions from food by half. Going vegan can reduce this even further.

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