Climate change is real. We are seeing the devastating effects now. If they have not come to your neighborhood yet with violent storms or raging wildfire, you are fortunate. We are in this together as a planet.
Eco-guilt may keep us from taking vacations or way heavy when we do. We can mitigate the effects of transportation by changing our diet. It’s an impactful everyday choice that will have more impact than other small steps to save the planet.
Diet vs Transportation
How many miles do you drive a year? How many airplane flights do you take? Transportation is often cited as one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases and an impactful way individuals can make a change.
The average American drives over 13,000 miles a year. 1 The average car emits 404 grams of CO2 per mile. 2 Doing the math, this means that each year Americans emit 5.4 metric tons driving. Obviously, this varies by vehicle efficiency, and the calculations are based on EPA statistics that the average car gets 22 mpg.
Air travel is another mode of transportation that creates climate change. According to the New York Times,
For many people reading this, air travel is their most serious environmental sin. One round-trip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person. The average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide a year; the average European, 10.[/note/https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/27/sunday-review/the-biggest-carbon-sin-air-travel.html4
Researchers looked at the diets of 55,504 people ages 20-79 and figured out the average greenhouse gas emissions associated with their diet. This large study found in measurements of kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per day:
- vegans 2.89
- vegetarians 3.81
- fish-eaters 3.91
- high meat eaters 7.19
- medium meat eaters 5.63
- low meat eaters 4.67
In particular, the study acknowledges, “Production, transport, storage, cooking and wastage of food are substantial contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” The authors concluded:
Analysis of observed diets shows a positive relationship between dietary GHG emissions and the amount of animal-based products in a standard 2,000 kcal diet. This work demonstrates that reducing the intake of meat and other animal based products can make a valuable contribution to climate change mitigation. Other work has demonstrated other environmental and health benefits of a reduced meat diet. National governments that are considering an update of dietary recommendations in order to define a ‘healthy, sustainable diet’ must incorporate the recommendation to lower the consumption of animal-based products.5
If you’re curious about the impact of particular foods, the study published the following table of information.
Greenhouse gas emissions for the 94 food commodities, weighted for production in the UK, imports from the EU, and imports from outside the EU
Aquatic Animals, Others
Aquatic Products, Other
Cereals – Excluding Beer
Coconuts – Incl Copra
Fats, Animals, Raw
Fish, Body Oil
Fish, Liver Oil
Fruits – Excluding Wine
Groundnuts (Shelled Eq)
Maize Germ Oil
Marine Fish, Other
Milk – Excluding Butter
Mutton & Goat Meat
Oilcrops Oil, Other
Rape and Mustard Oil
Rape and Mustardseed
Rice (Milled Equivalent)
Sugar & Sweeteners
Sugar (Raw Equivalent)
25% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide comes from food production. 6
To put it another way, eating one steak is the equivalent of driving your car three miles.
The Big Think reports:
For example, says Dr. M. Sanjayan, a UCLA visiting researcher and CEO of Conservation International, a steak—a food he loves—contributes 330 grams of carbon to the environment, when you factor in growing the animal, transportation, and, mostly, methane. Methane produced by livestock is 25 more times potent than carbon dioxide.
A six-ounce steak is equivalent to driving a car for three miles. By contrast, an equal serving of chicken produces 51 grams of carbon, while fish produces 40 grams. If you go full veggie you’re at 14 grams; an equivalent bowl of lentils comes in at two grams per serving.7
Amazingly, you don’t have to become a strict vegan or vegetarian to have an impact. Just one meal a week can make a difference! Consider these amazing statistics from the Environmental Defense Fund:
If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains, for example, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.
If every American had on meat-free meal per week, it would be the same as taking more than 5 million cars off our roads. 8
Curbing transportation use may be more difficult than simply eating a more plant-based diet. Imagine the impact if everyone went meat-free for an entire day!
In the 2005 article “Diet, Energy, and Global Warming”, University of Chicago researchers compared diets to actual vehicles. They found that by reducing your animal product consumption by 20% is like switching from driving a Toyota Camry to a Prius. Reducing your red meat diet by 35% is equivalent to switching from a gas guzzling SUV to a Prius.https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/10.1175/EI167.1
Our food choices make a difference. They are just as important as the modes of transportation we choose. We can make a difference!
Image: RyanMcGuire / Pixabay
If you take only one flight a year, this means that almost half of your carbon footprint comes from transportation. (note: warming effect is not the same as actually generated emission.)
Transportation is not always the easiest place to cut back significantly. One area that is easier to daily make an impact is diet.
A study conducted in the UK found that a vegetarian diet can cut your food-based greenhouse gas footprint in half. 3https://www.vox.com/2014/7/2/5865109/study-going-vegetarian-could-cut-your-food-carbon-footprint-in-half