Your plate and climate change in one graph

at 10:06 AM ET, 07/19/2011

Cheese and lamb are the real surprises on that graph, which comes via the Environmental Working Group . This seems like a good time to link back to an old column of mine on this subject:

According to a 2006 United Nations report, livestock accounts for 18 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Some of meat’s contribution to climate change is intuitive. It’s more energy efficient to grow grain and feed it to people than it is to grow grain and turn it into feed that we give to calves until they become adults that we then slaughter to feed to people. Some of the contribution is gross. “Manure lagoons,” for instance, is the oddly evocative name for the acres of animal excrement that sit in the sun steaming nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. And some of it would make Bart Simpson chuckle. Cow gas — interestingly, it’s mainly burps, not farts — is a real player.
But the result isn’t funny at all: Two researchers at the University of Chicago estimated that switching to a vegan diet would have a bigger impact than trading in your gas guzzler for a Prius (PDF). A study out of Carnegie Mellon University found that the average American would do less for the planet by switching to a totally local diet than by going vegetarian one day a week. That prompted Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to recommend that people give up meat one day a week to take pressure off the atmosphere. The response was quick and vicious. “How convenient for him,” was the inexplicable reply from a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. “He’s a vegetarian.” ...
The pity of it is that compared with cars or appliances or heating your house, eating pasta on a night when you’d otherwise have made fajitas is easy. It doesn’t require a long commute on the bus or the disposable income to trade up to a Prius. It doesn’t mean you have to scrounge for change to buy a carbon offset. In fact, it saves money. It’s healthful. And it can be done immediately. A Montanan who drives 40 miles to work might not have the option to take public transportation. But he or she can probably pull off a veggie stew. A cash-strapped family might not be able buy a new dishwasher. But it might be able to replace meatballs with mac-and-cheese. That is the whole point behind the cheery PB&J Campaign, which reminds that “you can fight global warming by having a PB&J for lunch.” Given that PB&J is delicious, it’s not the world’s most onerous commitment.
 
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