Explore the 1.5°C Living Targets...
3. Food and drink
A package of food measures comprising:
- Minimal consumption of animal-based foods e.g. vegan (100% plant-based food) or near-vegan diet
- Minimal consumption of foods that are air-freighted or grown in a heated greenhouse
- Minimal food waste
- Minimal consumption of foods that contribute to deforestation
Complying with this target would, on average in the UK, emit 0.9 tCO2e per capita per year.
Keep a food diary for a typical week, noting quantity and type of food, especially any with high emissions
‘Minimal’ means emissions from the stated categories amounting to no more than a few per cent of the total target.
In general, animal-based foods have significantly higher carbon footprints than plant-based foods with similar nutritional characteristics – and sometimes much higher (Poore and Nemecek, 2018). Professor Mike Berners-Lee of Lancaster University, UK, estimates that following a 100% plant-based (vegan) diet in the UK, which also avoids other high-carbon food, emits 1.15 tCO2e per year (Berners-Lee, 2020: 113–4). This is similar to an earlier estimate by Scarborough et al (2014). Other high-carbon food includes that which is air-freighted or grown in heated greenhouses. We also include within this definition food that contains more than 50% of its ingredients from high deforestation sources. The foods which are most responsible for deforestation are beef, palm oil and soya (Ritchie and Roser, 2021) – with the vast majority of the latter being used as feed for farm animals (which is part of the argument for minimising consumption of animal-based foods).
Eating out is also included in this category since the choices, while harder to follow in practice, are similar. However, it should be remembered that eating in a restaurant tends to be higher carbon than home-cooked food, so this option should be used sparingly (Berners-Lee, 2020: 108–111).
Reducing your food waste from an average proportion to near zero would save approximately 0.25 tCO2e per capita per year from this total (Berners-Lee, 2020: 113–4).
While minimum food labelling standards in the UK (and other industrialised nations) make it relatively straightforward to avoid animal-based food, food that is air-freighted, grown in a heated greenhouse, or that fuels deforestation is less obvious. Voluntary labelling schemes – such as those run by the Soil Association or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – can help to identify more sustainable sources, while products of uncertain provenance are most likely to be problematic. Buying fresh vegetables and fruit which are in season, some of which would be locally grown, or tinned food, would in many cases significantly decrease consumption of these high carbon foods. Maximising the consumption of locally grown vegetables and fruit – especially from an allotment – would lead to a small additional reduction (possibly up to 0.1 tCO2e beyond the target).
Variations on this option include eating small amounts of animal-based foods and compensating by minimising consumption of plant-based foods with higher emissions. In addition to those mentioned above, these include rice grown in paddy fields, food transported over large distances, and highly processed foods.
For more advice on minimising the carbon footprint of your diet, see e.g. Berners-Lee (2020: 199–201).
Efforts to reach this target should not compromise your health, so please do check that your chosen diet meets nutritional guidelines – for example, see NHS (2018).
The following academics, scientists and engineers working in climate change have committed to target 3 - climate-friendly eating.
The following members of the public have committed to target 3 - climate-friendly eating.