For the planet
When I started this plant-based journey, I was selfish. The changes I was making were purely in order to benefit myself and were solely for me and my health. I couldn't have cared less about electric cars or greenhouse gases (GHG). But as my kids got older, I wanted to teach them how to respect others, respect their surroundings and their planet. We taught them about pollution, about reducing their consumption of unnecessary materials, about recycling and about reusing things like water bottles, food containers, etc. We did this like any good parent would, regardless of their dietary preferences.
Then while reading more studies as I like to do, I read that a plant-based diet could reduce your carbon footprint on a scale exponentially larger than switching to an electric car, or recycling. Although this positive spin-off was purely coincidental and had nothing to do with motivating my transition to a plant-based diet, it confirmed that I was doing the right thing. My daughters love the fact that their diet is helping the planet.
"How can my diet have anything to do with saving the planet?" you might ask. Let me explain!
The term Carbon Footprint simply refers to the amount of greenhouse gases produced by a particular action. The dangers lie in the ability of those gases to trap heat and contribute to global warming. There are different types of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases, all have a different capacity of absorbing heat and contributing to global warming. This is expressed by their global warming potential (GWP). For example, methane (massively released during animal agriculture) has a GWP of 25, meaning it is 25 times more capable of sequestering heat than the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.
The carbon footprint of a particular action is expressed in a unit of measurement called CO2eq (carbon dioxide equivalent), where the contribution of all greenhouse gases are taken into account. Animal agriculture is a massive producer of methane, a greenhouse gas with a GWP of 25 compared to carbon dioxide. So although fossil fuels burned by industry, transportation, etc, have a major impact on GHG emissions (75% of total emissions), methane (which contributes 16% of emissions) has a GWP of 25 times that of carbon dioxide.
Let me clear things up with simple examples...
The carbon footprint of an 8oz steak, meaning the amount of GHG emitted and measured by CO2eq, is 330 grams. That might not mean much to you now, but let me compare to other identical portions of different foods. The same portion size of chicken has a 52 gram carbon footprint, 6 times less! Fish has a 40g footprint, legumes have a footprint of 14 grams. Lentils, a miracle of nutrition, have a carbon footprint of 2 grams, 150 times less than the equivalent portion of beef.
If you're open to reducing your carbon footprint, but a plant-based diet seems a little much for you right now, then simply reducing your consumption of red meat is the most powerful and helpful change you could make. That's why the carbon footprints of vegan diets, vegetarian diets, and Mediterranean diets are almost identical.
If people on planet Earth adopted a Mediterranean diet for one year, the carbon footprint equivalent to the carbon dioxide produced by 1 billion cars would be reduced, and transitioning towards a vegetarian diet one day per week for one year would reduce your GHG emissions by the same amount produced by driving 1900 km.
In a nutshell, the carbon footprint reduction adds up, quickly! And simply reducing the amount of red meat you consume, if you don't wish to stop completely, is the most powerful change you could make to reduce your carbon footprint.
On top of reducing your GHG, a plant-based transition has many other beneficial effects. To feed the planet with meat, it requires immeasurable amounts of resources. The land requirements for meat production in animal agriculture are exponentially greater than those to produce the equivalent amount of plant-based foods. One billion tons of grains and fertilizers used to feed animals that will be slaughtered are believed to be able to feed an estimated 3.5 billion people. Tropical forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate in order to make them suitable for animal agriculture. 91% of tropical forests destroyed annually are for animal agriculture. Deforestation for animal agriculture is the largest contributor of habitat destruction and animal extinction, and animal agriculture with pollution run-off is one of the largest contributors of ocean dead zones, where the oxygen concentration in the water has become too low to support life.
An estimated 87% of fresh water use in the United States is dedicated to animal agriculture. It takes 100 times the amount of water to produce 1 gram of animal protein than it takes to produce the same amount of vegetable protein. Let me illustrate more eye-opening examples. One pound of beef meat requires 5000 gallons of water. One gallon of cow's milk requires 1950 gallons of water, whereas one pound of tofu requires 302 gallons of water, and 290 gallons of water are required to produce a pound of oats. In terms of water per gram of protein, one gram of beef protein requires 50 gallons of water. One gram of milk protein requires 15 gallons of water. 6 gallons of water are required for 1 gram of protein from tofu, and 3.8 gallons for oats.
It is now obvious, and evidence based, to think that by transitioning either fully or partially to a plant-based diet, that we are helping to prevent deforestation, animal habitat destruction, reducing our water consumption, reducing pollution, and helping to save our planet and the global food chain that feeds it.
The global food chain
Carbon foodprints by diet type
Foodprints of different meats in comparison to plants
GWP of high-protein foods