The big problem with tackling climate change isn’t that we don’t know what to do, but making it happen fast enough. We have the technologies, but they can’t all be applied at speed, so it makes sense to look for quick ways to make a difference – things we can start today that'll see an instant payoff. And that's where food comes in.
Meat is a big part of most people's carbon footprints, so it’s right to focus on it as we look at our diets. But just to fill out the picture, here’s how it would make a difference, and some of the other things to consider:
1. Cutting down on meat and dairy, and switching to lower-carbon meats (chicken or pork rather than beef or lamb) can cut emissions by 34%.
2. Buying more local foods in order to reduce air miles will make a smaller difference than some might assume, given how often it gets mentioned. For British readers, eating local would cut 8-13%.
3. The average UK diet is quite some distance from what nutritionists would recommend. Moving to a healthy diet would trim 19% of our emissions as well as delivering all kinds of health benefits.
4. How much do you eat? If we all stuck to the recommended portion sizes, that would knock an estimated 15% off the emissions from food right away.
5. Of course, anything you throw away had to be grown and shipped too. Halving food waste could cut as much as 25% if you eat a lot of meat and dairy, less if you already eat more sustainably.
6. And if you do want to consider the vegan route, cutting out meat and dairy will make the biggest difference, slashing 43% off the carbon footprint from what you eat.
Those figures are all from the Centre for Alternative Technology’s report People, Plate and Planet, which compares several different diets and various ways to reduce their climate impact. Some of the differences are less than obvious, to do with the ingredients or the amount of processing that a food needs. If you’re looking to reduce your dairy intake, for example, starting with cheese would make a bigger difference than cutting out milk or yogurt.
Beyond the food itself, there are choices to make about how we cook and store food. If we look at total food related emissions, 40% are to do with things like refrigeration, cooking, and how we travel to the shops.
So there are a number of things we can do, and as always, there’s no need to be absolutist about it. Make incremental changes, try things out, and do what feels like the next natural step.