We Can Make a Difference

It seems there isn’t a week that goes by that weather is not in the news. Reports of droughts, hurricanes, massive snowfalls, powerful storms, cyclones, higher temperatures, and torrential rains around the globe are causing substantial damage. The destruction caused by extreme weather is so diverse it cannot be fully described. Homes and infrastructure are destroyed, crops are damaged or have reduced yields that cause food shortages, wildfires destroy everything in their path, lives are lost, people lose their homes and livelihoods, and costs run billions of dollars.

Some believe climate change is part of a natural cycle. Others believe it is a result of human activity. Clearly, the temperature of the atmosphere is increasing, and it causes great concern. How can we address this problem? What is currently being done?

First, a little history. In 2015, the Paris Agreement was created with policies and goals for how countries were going to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions with the goal to limit global warming to no more than 2º and preferably just 1.5º above pre-industrial levels by 2030. This legally binding agreement was signed by 194 countries. Under the Paris Agreement, each country was required to set its own goals and policies. They are carefully assessed and updated every five years at the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) meeting. There is no system in place to enforce the goals.

In addition, the United Nations climate conference named the Conferences of the Parties (COP). COP delegates include politicians and representatives from governments, fossil fuel lobbyists who protect coal, gas and oil interests, and environmentalists who oppose destructive environmental practices such as logging, mining, overfishing, and mega agricultural practices. Delegates from over 200 countries meet each year at this conference to review each country’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) goals that would improve climate change. They then decide how each country will reach its goals and report on the progress of previously set goals. All are centered around targets established in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Scientists agree that the plans currently in place must be accelerated so that global warming does not increase by more than 1.5º by 2030. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) consists of hundreds of scientists who review thousands of scientific papers each year related to climate change. Their conclusions are shared with policymakers. The IPCC has concluded emissions will continue to surpass levels necessary to meet the goals and report that many nations have not addressed the reduction of fossil fuels and methane. Without holding to the goal of capped global warming, no more than 1.5º, the IPCC predicts increased heat waves, droughts, and floods that will result in food shortages, Arctic ice thaws, rising sea levels that will submerge coastal areas and small islands, and a widespread risk of extinction for many species.

Other scientists report a global warming increase of more than 1.5º as a result of greenhouse gas emissions would cause an irreversible threat to human societies and the planet 1. Due to human activity, temperatures have already risen 1º. Increased global warming will increase the temperature of the ocean and cause increased atmospheric water vapor over the oceans. This creates heavy rains and snow, and decreases oxygen levels. It also increases the acidity of the water in the ocean and affects many ecosystems.

Many countries have convened to set goals and policies, assess the progress of previous agreements, and make changes needed to reach the goals. Realistic goal setting to limit a global warming increase to no more than 1.5º by 2030 is a very complex proposition. Officials wrestle with the political aspects of setting and achieving their goals. It requires billions of dollars and would change every aspect of our daily lives – our energy sources, the food we eat, transportation, and the way goods are produced.

Despite the challenges toward making progress, we as WFPB individuals continue to make a positive impact on our environment. Here are some areas where plant-based diets are NOT a contributor. Think about these facts:

  • Animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of greenhouse emissions, more than the combined exhaust of all transportation.2
  • Livestock is responsible for 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas with 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide that stays in the atmosphere for 150 years.3
  • 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 pound of beef.4
  • 5% of water consumed in the US is by private homes. 55% of water consumed in the US is for animal agriculture.5
  • Livestock or livestock feed occupies 1/3 of the earth’s ice-free land.6
  • 90-100 million tons of fish are pulled from the ocean each year.7
  • The leading causes of rainforest destruction are livestock and feed crops.8
  • The good news: people who follow a vegan diet produce the equivalent of 50% less carbon dioxide, use 1/11th oil, 1/13th water, and 1/18th of land compared with people who eat meat.9

What is so surprising (or maybe not): food systems in the context of what we eat were hardly mentioned at the COP27 conference last November. Why is that? We can see the impact agriculture has on the quality of our land, air, and water. Countries give tax credits for converting to solar or wind energy, encourage us to trade in gas-powered autos for electric vehicles, create new manufacturing careers in the field of energy, write laws that require manufacturing and transportation sectors to reduce their emissions, and other legislative actions. Perhaps it is because of what they cannot do – tell us how to eat three times a day. Maybe this is why we don’t hear much about it.

It starts by creating awareness. Numerous documentaries have been made and viewed by millions of people on the damage done to the environment when we don’t make sustainable food choices. In a majority of environmental arenas, what each of us has on our plate and how it affects the environment, for better or worse, is strangely a silent topic considering its impact. This needs to be included in our conversations when talking to friends and family as well as by governmental representatives who convene at international conferences.

It seems from most reports that a target to limit the increase of global warming to no more than 1.5º by 2030 will not be met. International climate change agreements are not always binding and not aggressive enough to meet the goal. Agreements are made, but countries face multiple barriers to meet their goals. Although the economy and inflation take center stage with elected officials, the rise in global temperature is paramount.

All movements start locally. What actions can we take to do our part?

  • Maximize your WFPB food choices! You are having a significant impact on the environment three times a day, seven days a week when eating a WFPB diet. The great thing about this action? No additional costs to make a difference!
  • Buy locally produced foods to reduce transportation emissions.
  • Reduce single-use plastic bags. Instead, bring reusable bags to retail stores and the supermarket.
  • Bring your own containers to the bulk food aisles.
  • Shop at grocery stores that have package-free fruits and vegetables. Talk to the produce manager at the grocery store where you shop if they stock fruits and vegetables that have unnecessary packaging, and ask if they would consider supporting vendors who use less or no packaging.
  • Turning the thermostat down 1-2º during the winter months will use less energy.
  • Look into solar panels for your home. Depending on how long you plan to stay in your home and available rebates, solar energy can be a good investment and save on the use of energy.
  • When voting, know your candidates’ positions on global warming and consider that in your selections.
  • See if your electric company has a clean renewable energy option that will give you the option of sourcing your electricity from wind or solar farms rather than from energy sources that create fossil fuels.
  • Research getting a hybrid or an electric vehicle when buying your next car.
  • Eliminate the release of methane gases that food scraps create in landfills.
  • See if your community has a food scraps program that will take your food scraps and recycle them into compost instead.
  • Group errands together to reduce carbon emissions.
  • Use public transportation when possible.
  • Have friendly conversations with others about the impact our food choices have on the environment.
  • Consider offering suggestions to our meat-eating friends, i.e., ‘Meatless Mondays’. Those who are concerned about the environment and global warming might be receptive. According to the University of Colorado Boulder Environmental Center, when going meatless once a week, each meatless meal would save 133 gallons of water each week, reduce their carbon footprint by 8 pounds each week, and would save the same amount of emissions in a year as driving 348 miles in a car.
  • See if your community has a local planet-focused organization that works toward making your community greener and more sustainable and get involved.
  • Each of us can make a difference. It starts locally by decreasing our environmental burden. When we do that, we see positive results.

1 IPCC, 2018: Summary for Policymakers. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Masson- Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma- Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, pp. 3-24, doi:10.1017/9781009157940.001.

2 ”Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options.” Food and Agriculture Organization for the United Nations. Rome 2006.

3 “Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. March 31, 2011.

4 Robbins, John. “2,500 Gallons All Wet?” Earth Save: Healthy People Healthy Planet.

5 Jacobson, Michael F. “Six Arguments for a Greener Diet: Home a More Plant-Based Diet Could Save Your Health and the Environment. Chapter 4: More and Cleaner Water.” Washington, DC” Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2006.

6 “Livestock a Major Threat to the Environment. Remedies Urgently Needed.” FAO Newsroom. November 29, 2006.

7 “World Review of Fisheries and Aquaculture: Part 1.” United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

8 ‘Buter, Rhett. “Cattle Ranching’s Impact on the Rainforest.” Mongabay.com. July 2012.

9 “The Carbon footprint of Five Diets Compared.” Shrink That Footprint.

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