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A Surprising Solution to Lowering Our Greenhouse Gas Emissions

meat and cheese cartoon

This April marks the 48th Earth Month, offering us an opportunity to reflect on our collective impact on the one and only planet we call home. Many simple life changes can make a big difference – switching our household electricity provider to renewable or carbon-neutral energy sources, replacing inefficient household electronics, using cold water to wash our clothes, signing up for a composting service, and recycling, just to name a few. 

But as the global community continues its steady march upwards in annual greenhouse gas emissions, many of us are left wondering, “What more can I do?” Environmental experts have offered a slew of recommendations over the years, which run the gamut from posing severe financial challenges (for example, switching to an electric vehicle) to raising ethical dilemmas (such as having one less child). One palatable solution might just be adjusting our daily diet.

It is well established that eating less meat can reduce one’s carbon footprint, as it reduces the strain on an extremely resource-intensive industry. Americans with diets heavy in meat and dairy are contributing a disproportionate amount to the nation’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. A new study suggests that about one-fifth of the most environmentally impactful diets account for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions from food consumption emitted per person on any given day in the U.S.1  

While the average American diet amounts to about 5 kg of carbon dioxide emissions per day, the typical meat- and dairy-heavy diet amounts to three times that! By bringing those resource-intensive diets more in line with the average American diet, we could save 0.27 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in a single day – that’s the equivalent of removing 661 million cars off the road!

To be sure, adjusting our diets can be a challenging lifestyle shift, but it is one immediately impactful way to reduce our carbon footprints. There’s advancement on the supply side, too, as many emerging food technologies are beginning to pare back on wasted energy and emissions. To learn about some of the exciting advances happening right here in Philadelphia, check out The Philadelphia Science Festival’s Future of Food and Brain Food: Science at the Market events!


[1] To estimate this value, researchers use food life cycle assessments, which quantify total energy used and emissions generated to produce any given product. The analysis uses the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey collected between 2005-2010 from 16,800 Americans.

April 23, 2018, 11:14am

Rachel D. Valletta, Ph.D.

Environmental Scientist

As Environmental Scientist, Rachel is dedicated to expanding the breadth and depth of earth and environmental science education within The Franklin Institute and bringing it into the Philadelphia community.