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Veganism and Climate Change: Is Going Vegan Good for the Planet?

Jane Marsh - April 28, 2021

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Veganism and climate change are two terms that appear in conjunction in the media. The rise of eco-consumerism pushed the market to develop dietary solutions to environmental problems. Many corporations adapted to this change by providing plant-based options to customers.

It’s common to see vegan burgers on fast food menus and dairy-free milk alternatives at corporate coffee shops. Society fully embraced this transformation with open arms. But does this dietary shift actually limit climate change? The answer is complicated.

Causes of Climate Change

To evaluate veganism as a solution to environmental degradation, we must first explore climate change as an independent concept. Weather patterns are constantly changing, causing a ripple effect of destruction across the global ecosystem. The cause of these shifting patterns is a rise in Earth’s average temperature, caused by atmospheric pollution.

The production of meat and livestock farming contributes to 14.5% of global carbon emissions. As carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHG) invade the atmosphere, they trap heat in the air, causing the temperature to rise over time.

Carbon dioxide and methane are the most common GHGs emitted by the animal agriculture industry. Cows distribute methane into the environment through gas release, causing severe destruction to the atmosphere. This GHG is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide, trapping heat for longer periods.

On Earth’s surface, meat production also causes immense destruction. The industry contributes to 80% of all deforestation, and it is the lead cause of clear-cutting in the Amazon rainforest. When cattle ranchers remove GHG-filtering plants and trees, 340 million extra tons of carbon reaches the atmosphere annually. An increase in Amazonian ranching also increases forest fire frequency, causing further environmental degradation.

Plant-Based Solutions

Many individuals adopted a vegan diet to reduce their contribution to eco-destruction caused by animal production. If everyone eliminated their consumption of meat products, 75% of global farmland could return to its organic, habitable state. When we conserve this land, rates of deforestation, carbon emissions, and forest fires decrease.

One can eliminate their contribution to atmospheric methane emissions when adopting a plant-based diet. You can also reduce your carbon dioxide emissions by half when moving away from meat consumption. Shrinking the size of your carbon footprint can significantly reduce your impact on climate change.

A reduction in meat production also limits the degradation of aquatic ecosystems. The land used to grow grain for livestock feed consumes a significant portion of agricultural capacity. To meet the dietary needs of factory farms, growers must produce lots of feed. They also use many pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to obtain grain quickly.

As temperatures rise and more water is stored in the atmosphere, rain falls more frequently. When heavy stormwater washes through agricultural regions, it carries pesticides and fertilizers to the sea. In the ocean, these contaminants destroy habitable zones and suffocate marine life.

When individuals reduce their consumption of animal products, it limits the need to use toxic chemicals to grow animal feed. Restricting the use of these contaminants protects aquatic ecosystems and human health.

What About Flexitarian Diets?

Unfortunately, a vegan diet may also produce destruction and hasten climate change. Almond milk is a popular dairy alternative in the plant-based community. Unfortunately, the production of this product causes water waste and pesticide use.

It takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow one almond. The amount of water filtered and pumped to produce this non-dairy alternative requires extensive energy use. To push a large amount of clean water to almond farms, producers must burn fossil fuels, contributing to the global temperature increase.

Mushrooms are another plant-based alternative that cause more harm than good to the environment. Vegans often replace meat with portobello mushrooms for their similar texture and flavor versatility. But these mushrooms are responsible for up to 2.95 kilograms of carbon dioxide during production.

Portobellos develop best at a temperature of 144°F, so grow rooms must be climate-controlled to meet this demand. Grow rooms emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide to maintain this atmosphere.

To challenge the environmental degradation caused by meat-less options, environmental dieticians developed a more sustainable consumption alternative.

Nutritionists developed the flexitarian diet to reduce meat consumption and offer flexibility for sustainability-driven dietary choices. This diet may efficiently reduce our consumer impacts on climate change. The flexitarian diet allows individuals to replace unsustainable plant-based options with their meat-containing counterparts.

For example, if one must choose between almond milk or local, free-range cow’s milk, they could select the animal product to limit their contribution to water scarcity. Having the flexibility to put environmental conservation before one’s loyalty to a label allows for sustainable consumption.

Choose Sustainability

When it comes to evaluating the question, “Is veganism good for climate change?” the answer is complex. While using your diet to limit your contribution to environmental destruction, it is best to explore the effects of your current consumption patterns. There is no one perfect solution to these issues, but awareness helps.

Understand how your dietary habits affect your carbon footprint and adjust consumption from there. When faced with the choice of animal intake or a plant-based alternative, choose the more sustainable option. Ensure that you have the flexibility and awareness to lead you in making eco-conscious consumption choices.

About the author

Jane Marsh

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.