A plant-based lifestyle could double climate benefits by 2050

Scientists have learned that replacing 50 percent of meat and dairy with vegan food can cut global emissions by 31 percent from agriculture and will save forests.
Shubhangi Dua
Higher consumption of plant-based alternatives could double climate benefits
Higher consumption of plant-based alternatives could double climate benefits

marilyna / iStock 

For decades, scientists have encouraged a plant-based eating lifestyle to help reduce global emissions. This has become more urgent with the rapidly accelerating climate change triggering unexpected crises such as wildfires across many parts of the world. 

Recently, a new study has found a link between substituting vegan food alternatives with meat and dairy, which could help cut down a chunk of global greenhouse emissions. 

In particular, researchers claim that substituting the consumption of meat and milk by 50 percent with plant-based alternatives by 2050 can reduce agriculture and land use-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 31 percent. Additionally, it would halt the degradation of forests and natural land.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Vermont (UVM), the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the Alliance of Bioversity International, and CIAT. 

Significant impact

The study aimed to demonstrate that adopting plant-based alternatives can have significant environmental and climate benefits and contribute to food security and biodiversity objectives worldwide.

According to a statement by the researchers, vegan options present additional advantages for climate and biodiversity conservation, including achieving reforestation objectives on lands that are no longer in use for livestock production. 

This would happen if livestock production was not required, paving the way for plant farming to replace the demand for dairy and meat products. The reforestation effort has the potential to double the climate benefits and halve the projected declines in ecosystem integrity by 2050.

Scientists estimated that the restored lands could contribute up to 25 percent of the evaluated global land restoration requirements under the 2030 Target 2 of the Kunming Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.

More than 'meatless Mondays'

Eva Wollenberg, co-author of the study from UVM, stated: “We’ll need much more than ‘Meatless Mondays’ to reduce the global GHG emissions driving climate change—and this study shows us a path forward.”

“Plant-based meats are not just a novel food product, but a critical opportunity for achieving food security and climate goals while also achieving health and biodiversity objectives worldwide. Such transitions are challenging and require a range of technological innovations and policy interventions.” 

The study represents a resolution to global food security by closely examining the complexity of food systems. 

“Understanding the impacts of dietary shifts expands our options for reducing GHG emissions," said Marta Kozicka, study lead author from IIASA. “Shifting diets could also yield huge improvements for biodiversity.” 

The research compared the impact of food systems to 2020 and found that the global agricultural area declined by 12 percent instead of expanding, and the reduction in forest areas and other natural land was almost completely halted.

Furthermore, nitrogen inputs to croplands are nearly half the estimated amount, while water use is reduced by 10 percent instead of increasing. 

The study estimations also found that by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions could decrease by 2.1 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year, a 31 percent reduction from the average of 1.6 billion metric tons per year between 2020 and 2050, even if we don't consider carbon sequestration on the spared land.

Undernourishment to decline

Additionally, undernourishment could decline to 3.6 percent globally compared to 3.8 percent estimated in 2020 if plant-based food replaces meat and dairy.

In order to execute the goals of the study, the authors developed plant-based alternatives for beef, pork, chicken, and milk to enable an easier transition in embracing the dietary changes. 

Scientists stated that the recipes were designed with the motive of keeping them nutritionally equal to the original animal-derived protein products. They also aimed for it to be realistic in manufacturing by using ingredients that are available worldwide.

The team also sought information from Impossible Foods, a company that develops plant-based substitutes for meat products. The firm supplied vegan recipes to the researchers for analysis.

Petr Havlík, the IIASA Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program Director, emphasized that dietary shifts serve as powerful enablers for reaching climate and biodiversity goals, but they must be accompanied by targeted production side policies to deliver their full potential. 

“Otherwise, these benefits will be partly lost due to production extensification and resulting GHG and land-use efficiency losses.”

Despite the study goals, authors acknowledged that livestock is crucial in providing income and nutrition for people in low- and middle-income countries. Livestock also hold cultural significance, help reduce risk, and contribute to diversifying the income of smallholders.

Achieving global food security

However, the new approach could assist in achieving global food security as climate change threatens the very livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

The research finds that the effects of dietary changes differ across regions because of population size, diets, agricultural productivity, and international trade involvement. 

For instance, China may see changes in agricultural inputs, while Sub-Saharan Africa and South America may experience environmental impacts. Recognizing these distinctions can help design better interventions for each region.

Wollenberg, a researcher at UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment, the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, Alliance of Bioversity International, and CIAT stated: 

“The food sector produces roughly one-third of global GHG emissions — and has been notoriously difficult to de-carbonize. Given the magnitude of benefits we show from substituting meat with plant-based alternatives for global sustainability, climate action, and human health, this research provides important food for thought for consumers, food producers, and policymakers.” 

The study was published in Nature Communications.

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