Climate: Eating vegetarian has little impact on your household carbon emissions

In spite of popular claims that eating vegetarian offers a dramatic reduction on your personal carbon emissions , the actual reduction is about 2%. Which means it is one of the last places you should focus your attention, in terms of having a meaningful impact.

I run a separate blog called Social Panic, focusing on how propaganda messaging influences our thinking. One trick to combat propaganda messaging is to practice what the late Dr. Hans Rosling calls “Factfulness”.  That means, basically, verifying what you are told. As he learned, almost everything the general public thinks they know, is actually wrong! (Read his book Factfulness to understand that issue).

We practice “Factfulness” when we try to verify claims. Let’s do it.

From the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan comes this chart showing an allocation for an “average” person:

From this chart, it sure looks like eating “Meat” has a large impact on your carbon footprint. Some in the climate advocacy community take this one step way too far:

which is a straight out lie!

The food pie chart is itself a small slice of a much larger pie. Many people, such as the linked climate advocate,  see charts like the above  and promptly misinterpret the chart, fail to understand that food is only one small slice of the household’s emissions, and falsely believe eliminating meat from their diet has a large impact on their carbon emissions.

Here is a chart from the web site Climate Buddies, which advocates for a reduced carbon footprint:

The “food” slice is estimated 12.8% of the this typical American home.

From the first chart, 47.6% of 12.8% (second chart)  is   6% of your household  carbon emissions equivalent .

Different sources report slightly different estimates for the allocation of meat to the food pie and food to the household pie. Thus, 6% is just one estimate among many, with variations above and below that level.

For the  “average” person in the industrial world (not just the U.S.) eating meat is estimated to reduce one’s carbon emissions by 4.3%, which puts the false   “Cut your carbon footprint in half by  going vegetarian”  claim as off by one full magnitude!

In reality it is not actually 4.3% because the substitutes you choose have their own carbon emissions, and the money saved by not eating meat is spent, typically, on other carbon emission activities.

Taking all this into consideration, for those in the industrialized world, eating vegetarian, on average, reduces your carbon emission equivalent  by just 2%.

Eating vegetarian does reduce carbon emissions, but by little.

You may have reasons to choose to eat vegetarian, but as a means of reducing your personal carbon emissions, it is a very low priority item.

Your own reduction from eating vegetarian depends on your individual situation. If you eat less meat than average, then cutting out all meat has less impact than for someone who eats a lot of meat. Similarly, it depends on the rest of your household energy and CO2e budget. If you live in wood heated home (net zero CO2e), on solar power, and drive a solar powered EV, then food is a larger component of your remaining household emission. On the other hand, you could do all that but also be a world traveler –  A single flight to Europe  once per year from my home adds 2.4 tons of CO2e to the carbon budget, which is about  3x more CO2e than one likely saves  by eating vegetarian.

A related problem is that people make eco friendly choices in one place and feeling virtuous, then make less eco friendly choices in other aspects of their lives. “I eat vegetarian therefore I can fly to Europe” does not work out by the numbers, but many people do not know what the numbers are and by  they time they are done, they have increased their  emissions, rather than reduced them.

Household Carbon Emission Calculations

There are many online carbon emission calculators to help estimate your  own CO2e emissions for the year.

I used this one at the University of California, Berkeley and it estimates our household annual carbon emissions at about 20 tons of CO2e per year, or 62% less than the average  American home.

We are very low because we have solar PV (net zero), fly rarely, drive efficient vehicles, and heat our home with locally sourced wood pellets. Wood heating is viewed as carbon neutral based on the idea that growing wood sucks carbon out of the atmosphere. Burning wood releases carbon to the atmosphere. As new trees grow, they again pull carbon back out of the atmosphere for a net zero contribution.

Obviously there is energy used to harvest and process and transport the pellets. Our local manufacturers used a combination of forestry management “by products” (blown down, cut down, damaged wood in the forest) and left over wood products (saw dust, left over cut wood from milling operations). Because we live in the Pacific Northwest, much of which is heavily forested, we have local manufacturers in our own city and in other cities within 2-3 hours transport time.

Standard Disclaimer Applies: How to Do Climate Communications – Never Cry Wolf

As I previously wrote

The Nature Conservancy should focus on facts of atmospheric CO2 levels rising, land and sea surface temperature anomalies, ice pack changes, ocean Ph and sea level change (IPCC Synthesis Report, Figure SPM.1) – as reported by reputable scientific bodies, but they did not. Instead they went straight for hyperbole and making untrue claims to promote fear and hysteria.

or

Stick with the facts of CO2 rising, sea level ice and temperature changes, ice mass changes or risk tuning all of us out. Shrill terminology designed to create emotional outrage and responses is a total turn off.

and

The facts are sufficient. The impacts of untrue propaganda hysteria, on the other hand, are to turn off the target completely. We have learned nothing from the parable of the boy who repeatedly cried Wolf!

The propaganda messaging methods in use are leading to public opinions that are not based in facts, logic or evidence. In the U.S. 51% of those aged 18-34 believe humanity may become extinct within 10-15 years, even though there is zero evidence to support such a conclusion. This disconnect between belief and reality risks the potential for major backlash against taking action to reduce CO2-equivalent effects on climate.

Some suggest focusing on solutions and opportunities – instead of unrealistic, dystopian catastrophes designed primarily as click-bait – would be a more effective and positive way forward for climate communications. Instead, we get intense negativity – and falsehoods – that have led to children and adults to seek mental health treatment for induced anxiety.

Personal Notes on Climate Realism

We are taking direct actions to reduce our CO2-equivalent emissions. In late 2019, we spent US$18,000 (before credits) to install a solar PV array that reduce’s our home’s annual grid-provided electricity to net zero (likely less). Our utility generates 56% of its electricity by burning coal and 14% by burning natural gas (about half the emissions of coal). Solar PV directly cuts our portion of those GHG emissions to zero.

We just spent $5,000 to upgrade 40 year old R-19 attic insulation (which has settled such that it is less than that) to R-60 building code standards. For an all electric house, and before the updates, we already used 1/3d the amount of electricity of similar homes. We heat using locally sourced wood pellets and our home is cold every winter day.

While spending an amount similar to a low end electric vehicle, our solar and attic upgrades will have a far greater reduction in CO2 emissions than buying an EV.

Up to half of an EV’s lifetime CO2 emissions occur during its manufacturing and if you live where your electricity to charge your EV is generated by burning coal, your overall CO2 emissions reductions are small or non-existent. While EVs will generally reduce CO2 emissions, for many they are primarily a virtue signaling device (a survey by Volvo  found about 75% of purchasers said this, and selected an EV because paradoxically it “helps them to feel better about making less environmentally conscious decisions in “other areas of life.”)

According to the International Energy Agency,  the lifetime CO2-equivalent emissions of an EV are about the same as a hybrid car (e.g. Prius) or a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) and only slightly less than an internal combustion engine vehicle of a similar size  (which is likely a big surprise to those buying EVs and thinking they are “zero emission”).

I drive a Honda Fit averaging about 42 mpg.

I post this at the end of each climate communications post because merely mentioning climate results in being called a climate denier or a Nazi.

Call me a climate realist but don’t call me a denier or a Nazi.