The CO2 Index: Counting the calories of our future

Why This Matters | Pascual Di Tella | April 29, 2016

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In the past few decades, we have gradually started becoming conscious of what we eat. In the USA, 35.7% of the adult population is estimated to be obese, and with so much attention falling on diets and nutrition, we have started demanding certain things. Producers now label their crops as organic, GMO-free, and publishing calorie counts has become standard practice (even mandatory in some cases).  These calorie counts serve to simplify the process of making healthy eating choices, and, I suspect, may have the largest impact on changing our dietary choices.

Livestock emit more greenhouse gases than the world’s entire transportation sector

Along with this shift towards eating healthy, people have also started to become aware of the environmental impact of the agriculture industry. Around 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, that is to say, livestock emit more greenhouse gases than all the cars, airplanes, motorcycles and yachts in the world combined. And this isn’t livestock’s only impact; somewhere between 60%-91% of amazon deforestation stems from cattle ranching. And people care: about 70% of people are sympathetic to environmental causes. Yet, this awareness of the environmental impact of agribusiness has lacked practical solutions. Meat alternatives and vegetarian eateries are becoming more common, but this shift towards low impact foods has not permeated the mainstream eating culture. Let me repeat, about 70% of people are sympathetic to environmental causes, but people are left without a practical way of tackling this issue, without drastically changing their lifestyles.

One way practical way of tackling the issue would be to create an index, much like calorie counting, but for environmental impact. In this way, people could start to make a difference, however small, each time they order a sandwich. It is incredibly inefficient to have a diet that revolves around so much meat and the environment is paying the consequences. 56% of fresh water in the US is used by the livestock industry. Additionally, a  cow has to eat 20 pounds of grain for every pound of beef produced. An environmental impact index provides a practical way to factor the environment into our dietary decisions.

The world will not be saved by a handful of vegan crusaders

Of course it is harder to create a universal environmental impact index than a calorie counter, but a good place to start would be CO2 emissions. A kilogram of beef protein has, on average, 300 kg of CO2 associated with it; a kilogram of chicken protein has around 40 kg of CO2 associated to it. By creating an index that reflects these drastic differences in meats, people will most likely shift towards lower impact meats. Regardless, the purpose of this index is not to turn people into vegetarians, it is to make people conscious of the environmental impact of their appetites. This index will provide concrete suggestions that will guide people towards more environmentally friendly dietary choices. The struggle for sustainability does not depend on a handful of vegan crusaders; the struggle depends on the rest of us.