Our 2020 Climate Goals Can Be Met with One Dietary Swap

published Aug 4, 2017
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(Image credit: Tara Mataraza Desmond)

Back in 2003, a global movement called Meatless Monday called on people to abstain from eating meat once a week. An initiative created between The Monday Campaigns and the Center for a Livable Future (CLF) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the goal was two-fold: to better our health and improve our environment.

Critics and skeptics have often questioned how effective Meatless Monday is in the big picture, but a new report from The Atlantic manages to provide some perspective about how what we choose to eat can influence the planet.

Helen Harwatt, a researcher specializing in environmental nutrition, and a team of scientists from Oregon State University, Bard College, and Loma Linda University crunched numbers to see what would hypothetically happen if Americans swapped out beef for beans.

“While not currently recognized as a climate policy option, the ‘beans for beef‘ scenario offers significant climate change mitigation and other environmental benefits, illustrating the high potential of animal to plant food shifts,” write the authors, who published their findings in the journal Climate Change.

If the entire nation would be up to make this dietary change, then the country could “come close” to fulfilling the President Barack Obama’s 2009 pledge: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 16.3 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. Specifically, the nation “could achieve approximately 46 to 74% of the reductions needed to meet the 2020 GHG target for the U.S.”

The hypothetical explored by Harwatt is exactly that — a hypothetical. But it shows how dietary decisions have a broader impact than just our health. When it comes to the planet, all small steps and changes can make a lasting difference.

“The real beauty of this kind of thing is that climate impact doesn’t have to be policy-driven,” Harwatt tells The Atlantic. “It can just be a positive, empowering thing for consumers to see that they can make a significant impact by doing something as simple as eating beans instead of beef.”