Emission sources of individual households

Individuals can make various changes in their everyday life for the sake of climate by reducing their per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Several aspects of our activities and consumption patterns result in significant amounts of emissions, particularly in the areas of mobility and travel (e.g., car use, long-distance flights, etc.), personal energy use (e.g., the amount of heating and electricity we use), and the composition of our diets [1] (e.g., local/regional foods, plant-based or omnivorous diets). The following blog post focuses on the latter and looks more closely at the relationship between individual diets and GHG emissions.

Meat nation Austria

Today’s diet in Austria and in several parts of the world is characterized by a huge proportion of meat and dairy products. Although dishes based on meat and dairy products are deeply rooted in Austrian culture and cuisine, these personal preferences also have their downsides. In 2019, the average meat consumption was 62.6 kg per person, which represents a slight decrease compared to previous years. In comparison with other EU member states, we rank 3rd in the highest meat consumption behind Spain and Luxembourg. In terms of preferred types of meat, pork is the most popular (although the numbers are declining), followed by chicken and beef.

Figure 1: Total consumption of meat (in million metric tons) in different regions and globally [2]

Following the recommendations of the Austrian Nutrition Society (ÖGE) for a healthy and balanced diet, the current meat intake per person should be drastically reduced by around two thirds (66%). This would correspond to a maximum of three portions of meat (100 to 150 grams each) per week.

Individual diets and emissions

But what impact do different types of diets have on total food emissions? In general, consumption of animal foods such as meat is associated with higher estimated emissions compared to plant foods. In particular, ruminant meat (e.g., beef and lamb) has a significantly high impact on GHG emissions and land use due to the production of methane [2] (a more potent but shorter-lived greenhouse gas compared to carbon dioxide) [3]. A recent study for Austria found that following the ÖGE recommendations described above can already reduce food related GHG emissions by 28%, while also significantly reducing land use. In addition, by completely eliminating meat and switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet, food related GHG emissions can be reduced by a maximum of 70%. This can be improved even further by switching to organic products in all diets [4].

Figure 2: GHG emissions from different food sources [2]

Also note that emissions can arise on multiple steps of the lifecycle, ranging from cultivation to disposal. The next blog entry will deal with this topic in more detail, to be continued!

GHG emissions, what else?

Even though the figures presented may sound impressive, studies show that many people find it difficult to change their eating habits and reduce or give up their favorite foods. In general, the argumentation “for the sake of the climate” is unfortunately often not convincing enough for the majority of people to actually change their behavior [5][6][7]. However, as with many other green developments, reduced meat consumption can also bring various other benefits than “just” reducing GHG emissions. One important factor to consider is health [4]. As has already been addressed, the current average meat consumption cannot be considered healthy [8]. Studies show that high consumption of processed meat (such as sausage, bacon, or deli meats) is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer [2], which is why the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared it to be carcinogenic to humans. In addition to direct health reasons, factory farming also increases the risks of foodborne infections and their transmission from livestock to humans [2]. This is also directly related to the discussion of working conditions in such environments, where pay is generally low [9][10]. Other ethical reasons that may play a role in the decision to reduce or omit animal foods are related to animal rights and welfare. For example, many people are unaware that in the chicken industry, male chickens that cannot be used for egg production are gassed or chopped [11], or that cows must be impregnated almost constantly to produce milk and are separated from their calves immediately after birth [12]. In addition, agriculture and food production continue to involve extensive land use, including deforestation and water consumption [8].

Where to go?

It seems unrealistic to assume that the majority of people will completely switch to a vegetarian or even vegan diet. However, as reflected in the above figures, even smaller changes (reducing meat consumption to a healthy level, starting one vegan day per week, etc.) in diets can have a positive impact both on the environment and on one’s own well-being. In my opinion, it is time that we abandon the strict labeling of lifestyles and start appreciating alternative in-betweens that still keep us going (e.g., flexitarians, who switch between different diets).

For several years now, the “Veganuary” challenge takes place every January, where for four weeks, people around the world are trying to change their eating habits toward plant-based solutions. The challenge is supported by many organizations, restaurants, brands and celebrities. More information, including recipes and further tips about it can be found here: https://veganuary.com/en-us/

[1] Hedenus, F., Wirsenius, H., & Johansson, D.J.A. (2014). The importance of reduced meat and dairy consumption for meeting stringent climate change targets, Climatic Change, 124, 79-91, doi: 10.1007/s10584-014-1104-5

[2] Godfray, H.C.J., Aveyard, P., Garnett, T., Hall, J.W., Key, T.J., Lorimer, J., Pierrehumbert, R.T., Scarborough, P., Springman, M., & Jebb, S.A. (2018). Meat consumption, health, and the environment, Science, 361 (6399), doi: 10.1126/science.aam5324

[3] Mbow, C., Rosenzweig, C., Barioni, L.G., Benton, T.G., Herrero, M., Krishnapillai, M., Liwenga, E., Pradhan, P., Rivera-Ferre, M.G., Sapkota, T., Tubiello, F.N., & Xu, Y. (2019). Food Security. In: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems

[4] Schlatzer, M., & Lindenthal, T. (2020). Einfluss von unterschiedlichen Ernährungsweisen auf Klimawandel und Flächeninanspruchnahme in Österreich und Übersee (DIETCCLU). Endbericht von StartClim2019.B in StartClim2019: Weitere Beiträge zur Umsetzung der österreichischen Anpassungsstrategie, Auftraggeber: BMLFUW, BMWF, ÖBf, Land Oberösterreich

[5] de Boer, J., Schösler, H., & Boersema, J.J. (2013). Climate change and meat eating: An inconvenient couple?, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 33, 1-8, doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2012.09.001

[6] Tobler, C., Visschers, V.H.M, & Siegrist, M. (2011). Eating green. Consumers’ willingness to adopt ecological food consumption behaviors, Appetite, 57, 674-682, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2011.08.010

[7] Macdiarmid, J.J., Douglas, F., & Campbell, J. (2016). Eating like there’s no tomorrow: Public awareness of the environmental impact of food and reluctance to eat less meat as part of a sustainable diet, Appetite, 96, 487-493, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2015.10.011

[8] Westhoek, H., Lesschen, J.P., Rood, T., Wagner, S., De Marco, A., Murphy-Bokern, D., Leip, A., van Grinsven, H., Sutton, M.A., & Oenema, O. (2014). Food choices, health and environment: Effects of cutting Europe’s meat and dairy intake, Global Environmental Change, 26, 196-205, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2015.10.011

[9] Wagner, B., & Hassel, A. (2016). Posting, subcontracting and low-wage employment in the German meat industry, Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research, 22 (2), 163-178, doi: 10.1177/1024258916636012

[10] Human Rights Watch (2019). “When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting” – Workers’ Rights Under Threat in US Meat and Poultry Plants, Report, ISBN: 978-1-6231-37588

[11] Leenstra, F., Munnichs, G., Beekman, V., van den Heuvel-Vromans, E., Aramyan, L., & Woelders, H. (2011). Killing day-old chicks? Public opinion regarding potential alternatives, Animal Welfare, 20, 37-45

[12] Stuart, D., Schewe, R.L, & Gunderson, R. (2012). Extending Social Theory to Farm Animals: Addressing Alienation in the Dairy Sector, Sociologia Ruralis, 53 (2), 201-222, doi: 10.1111/soru.12005