A widespread dietary shift from meat to plant-based foods could offset years of harmful CO2 emissions, according to a study from NYU. The researchers propose that transitioning to plant-sourced protein will free up agricultural land that may be re-dedicated to ecosystems which absorb carbon dioxide.
The experts have pinpointed specific locations where changing what people grow could support the cultivation of beneficial ecosystems.
“The greatest potential for forest regrowth, and the climate benefits it entails, exists in high- and upper-middle income countries, places where scaling back on land-hungry meat and dairy would have relatively minor impacts on food security,” said study lead author Professor Matthew Hayek.
The investigation shows that if the demand for meat drastically declined in the coming decades – along with its massive land requirements – vegetation regrowth could remove as much as 16 years of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions. The removal of this much CO2 would basically double the Earth’s rapidly shrinking carbon budget.
“We can think of shifting our eating habits toward land-friendly diets as a supplement to shifting energy, rather than a substitute,” said Professor Hayek. “Restoring native forests could buy some much-needed time for countries to transition their energy grids to renewable, fossil-free infrastructure.”
The researchers emphasize that their findings are designed to assist locally tailored strategies for mitigating climate change. While meat consumption is excessive in many countries, raising animals remains critically essential in some places. These considerations will be important as countries attempt to develop their economies sustainably, said study co-author Professor Nathan Mueller.
“Land use is all about tradeoffs. While the potential for restoring ecosystems is substantial, extensive animal agriculture is culturally and economically important in many regions around the world. Ultimately, our findings can help target places where restoring ecosystems and halting ongoing deforestation would have the largest carbon benefits,” said Professor Mueller.
Technological solutions for climate change, such as new methods for carbon capture and storage, will soon become available. However, placing too much confidence in these technologies could prove dangerous, according to study co-author Helen Harwatt of Harvard Law School.
“Restoring native vegetation on large tracts of low yield agricultural land is currently our safest option for removing CO2. There’s no need to bet our future solely on technologies that are still unproven at larger scales,” said Harwatt.
The benefits of cutting back on meat and dairy reach far beyond addressing climate change. “Reduced meat production would also be beneficial for water quality and quantity, wildlife habitat, and biodiversity,” noted study co-author Professor William Ripple of Oregon State University.
The COVID-19 pandemic is shedding new light on the importance of healthy ecosystems in preventing zoonotic disease outbreaks.
“We now know that intact, functioning ecosystems and appropriate wildlife habitat ranges help reduce the risk of pandemics,” said Harwatt. “Our research shows that there is potential for giving large areas of land back to wildlife. Restoring native ecosystems not only helps the climate; when coupled with reduced livestock populations, restoration reduces disease transmission from wildlife to pigs, chickens, and cows, and ultimately to humans.”
The study is published in the journal Nature Sustainability .
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer