Do Plant-Based Diets Have a Significant Impact on Climate Change?

Luke Yeatman

With how much I have heard about the negative environmental impacts of the meat industry, I have at times been motivated to consider giving up or at least reducing my consumption of meat and animal products. However, like any other individual action, I find myself susceptible to fears that my choices don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I know eating meat is supposed to increase your carbon footprint, but I don’t know how much, or what specifically about meat contributes most to this footprint. So, do plant-based diets really make a difference? And if so, how can the government incentivize them? In my research, I found that beef is by far the largest factor in dietary carbon emissions, and that the best governmental action to produce this dietary shift would involve a combination of taxing beef and subsidizing the development of the alternative meat industry.

A BBC article recorded the behavior of vegetarians versus vegans versus omnivores over a week and found that vegan CO2 emissions were 9.9kg compared to 16.9kg for vegetarians and 48.9kg for omnivores.[1] This suggests that while the least carbon-intensive diet comes from veganism, the greatest reduction comes from giving up meat. The experiment found that the largest dietary change came from giving up beef. This idea is supported by a Columbia University paleoclimatologist who argued that most environmental benefits of vegetarianism can be achieved solely by reducing beef consumption.[2]

Beef consumption contributes more to CO2 emissions than any other source of protein fivefold. 9.6 kg of CO2 are emitted for every 1000 calories of beef compared to proteins like pork, poultry, and vegetables, which emit 2.0, 1.5, and 0.3 kg/1000 calories respectively.[3] Beef was the most consumed meat from the 1950s until 2010. It rose dramatically in popularity until the mid-1970s and has been on average declining since then.[4] Simultaneously, chicken has been increasing in average consumption since the mid 1940s. In 2010, chicken consumption surpassed that of beef. Today the average American consumes about 60 pounds of beef annually compared to about 100 pounds of poultry. 

The demographics for beef consumption play a major role in this shift, and will continue to do so in the future. A Tulane study found that Beef was by far the most popular for males between the age of 50 and 65. 12% of survey respondents contributed 50% of the beef consumption, and this male baby-boomer demographic was primarily responsible. The rate of beef consumption decreases after the age of 66.[5] To contrast to this, most people who don’t eat meat come from a much younger demographic. A poll by the Guardian found that 67% of vegans were aged 34 or younger.[6] Given both facts, it is likely that the consumption of beef will decline sharply in the coming years, which has the potential to offset some of the increased carbon emissions as the global population increases.

This information suggests a trend that plant-based diets, or at least diets with reduced beef consumption, are on the rise. A vegan diet is shown to have the smallest carbon footprint, while the most impactful individual action is by far reduced beef consumption. 

There are many actions that the U.S. government can take to capitalize on this current demographic shift and reduce beef consumption. Firstly, national governments around the world have been increasing funding for the alternative proteins industry. In 2022, global funding doubled for research and promotion of alternative proteins.[7] This correlates with a large increase in the consumption of plant-based protein, but barely corresponds to any reduction in meat consumption.[8] As an alternative approach, taxes on carbon-intensive proteins like beef have been considered. These so-called “sin taxes” have been implemented on products harmful to human health, like cigarettes and alcohol. These taxes have been shown to be quite effective, as a 1% increase in the price of either tobacco or alcohol has been shown to lead to a 0.5% decrease in their sale.[9] The same study showed an even stronger correlation with beef prices, with closer to a 0.75% consumption reduction for each 1% in price increase. These numbers are quite promising, but it is important to note that these taxes have always been controversial as they tend to force low-income communities to bear the brunt of the burden, and are generally unpopular politically.[10] Therefore, appropriate government action requires the combined tactful implementation of both funding for the alternative protein industry (providing money for research and marketing to bring these products into the mainstream) and taxing of beef consumption. Together these actions would greatly increase the appeal of alternative proteins, while providing an incentive to reduce beef consumption without making it prohibitive for anyone determined to continue their eating habits.

One of the greatest impacts a person can have on their carbon footprint is to reduce or cease their meat consumption, particularly their consumption of beef. Demographic trends show that a reduction in beef consumption is at hand, and government taxes and funding have the capacity to expedite this process.


[1] Martha Henriques and Zaria Gorvett, “The climate benefits of veganism and vegetarianism”. BBC News, (May 3, 2022). 

[2] Anuradha Varanasi, “You asked: Should we all go vegetarian or vegan to reduce our carbon footprint?”. State of the Planet, (September 26, 2019). 

[3] Hold the Beef, “Hold the Beef”. Recovered from https://holdthebeef.org/#new-page (March 6, 2024).

[4] Nicola Twilley, “Infographic: A century of meat consumption”. Good, (August 1, 2019)

[5] Matt Reynolds, “A demographic time bomb is about to hit the beef industry”. Wired Magazine, (December 21, 2023). 

[6] Sarah Marsh, (2016, May 27). “The rise of vegan teenagers: ‘more people are into it because of Instagram.’” The Guardian. (May 27, 2016). 

[7] The Good Food Institute, “The State of Global Policy on alternative proteins.” Recovered from The State of Global Policy on Alternative Proteins – The Good Food Institute (gfi.org), (August 3, 2023). 

[8] Michael Siegrist and Christina Hartmann, “Why alternative proteins will not disrupt the meat industry”. ScienceDirect, (September, 2023).

[9] W.Z., “Do ‘sin taxes’ work?” The Economist, (August 10, 2018). 

[10] Brian Kateman, “Is a meat tax a good idea?”. Forbes, (August 27, 2019)

9 thoughts on “Do Plant-Based Diets Have a Significant Impact on Climate Change?

  1. Luke, your insightful exploration of the environmental impact of dietary choices, particularly focusing on beef consumption, really shines a light on a critical aspect of individual responsibility in working against climate change. I like how your research for this post effectively shows the disproportionate carbon footprint of beef compared to other sources of protein, highlighting the potential for significant emissions reductions through dietary shifts. Your idea/proposal to incentivize plant-based diets through a combination of beef taxation and alternative protein industry subsidies presents a relatively realistic approach to both environmental conservation and public health. By recognizing the demographic dynamics that influence consumption patterns, as well as the potential socio-economic implications of policy interventions, I think your analysis offers a great perspective on the complex relationship that exists between personal choices and governmental action in mitigating degradation at the environmental level.

  2. In recent years, I think it has become glaringly obvious that the current level of meat consumption (fish, beef and poultry) is not compatible with the climate action we need. I think your blog questioning how to incentivize this decision without accidentally harming disadvantaged consumers is a conversation we need to have. Firstly, research into alternative proteins is not the only part of this process that needs serious financial assistance; many vegan alternatives are cost prohibitive for the consumer. I have spoken to family and friends who want to make the switch, but their monthly expenses on food would raise to an unsustainable level for them if they purchased vegan alternatives to meat and dairy products. This aspect of plant-based living can disincentivize many people, particularly younger professionals, from making the switch. Potentially, subsidizing these products because of their environmental benefit could assist in driving people towards these products. Secondly, while the idea of a meat tax or beef tax is particularly appealing to me, I think that different meat products should be treated differently. Small-scale farms that respect animal welfare and do not partake in factory farming should not be subject to the same level of tax. Ultimately, food and meat can have deep cultural ties to individuals, and if they continue to purchase meat, we should incentivize them to purchase meat that is farm raised and has fair labor practices. Finally, I think a large part of persistent meat consumption is merely lack of education about the alternatives and nutrition value of plant-based diets. I have seen many articles and heard many people say that adequate protein consumption is not possible under plant-based diets. Educational initiatives are necessary to help teach people about the benefits of a plant-based diet for the environment, but also for their individual health. Unfortunately, food is so intertwined with culture and personal enjoyment that most people do not make these decisions on a carbon-emission calculus and so detangling the meat industry from our lives will have to take a multifaceted approach.

  3. I think too many people are willing to defer the responsibility of climate action onto large corporations and governments. While their participation will be critical in mitigating the impacts of climate change, it is important to combat the idea that individual action is useless. As someone who has considered going vegetarian multiple times, I found this blog post to be extremely relatable and applicable. During our class discussion on the dimensions of problem definitions, it was easy to see how important accountability and responsibility are for making headway on solving any environmental issue. By adopting the mindset that it is not our individual ‘job’ or responsibility to lower carbon emissions, we are ignoring the power of collective action.
    I had never heard about the huge impact that beef alone has on global greenhouse gas emissions. I have found that many people, including me, tend to have an ‘all or nothing’ approach when it comes to lowering your own carbon footprint. People might feel like they have to completely cut out meat or change their entire daily routine to commit to combatting climate change. However, true change can be compounded amongst the smaller actions of everyone. In this case, at least to start, something is better than nothing. This post convinced me to reevaluate my beef consumption as a starting point in constructing a more environmentally friendly diet. Something that stood out to me, or that I’d like to learn more about is the beef tax. While I find it to be compelling, I’m curious about how the taxing of something that does not directly cause negative health effects (like beef) would sit with the general public. Given what we’ve learned about congressional stagnation, I’m slightly skeptical about the feasibility of such a tax. Are there any other countries that have a similar tax? Do any other food products in the US have a tax? I think your emphasis on a multi-faceted, interdisciplinary approach to this issue (with both the tax and need for increased funding for the alternative protein industry) also applies to many other climate change related dilemmas. Overall, this was well-written, concise, and applicable!

  4. I think you did a really great job addressing concerns that most individuals have and breaking down the facts in a very digestible way. I have also heard a lot about the negative impacts of the meat industry and through classes and social media have been told that reducing or eliminating meat consumption is the best thing that an individual can do for the environment. I think that all individuals that care about the environment have gone through a period of questioning if what they are doing is truly making a difference and your ability to acknowledge that helped myself as a reader be much more willing to listen. I was very interested in the demographics of beef consumption which as they reflect, makes sense but it’s also something that I have never discussed. Additionally, I had never considered dietary choices to be anything but a personal choice and I thought it was really interesting that you addressed “sin taxes” as a potential way to incentivize other options. I think it is interesting to group beef with cigarettes and alcohol because it does also have negative health effects, not as severe per se, but there are many health benefits to not eating beef which is another approach that could be used to incentivize the general public to reduce their beef consumption without making it prohibitive. Overall, this blog Explained a lot of interesting topics such as demographics and potential policies that are not typically associated with the conversation around reducing carbon footprints.

  5. This was a great piece and very informative about the impacts of human meat consumption on our planet. I did not realize that beef consumption has such a large impact when compared to other types of meat. I think as we have seen it is a hard ask for people to just give up meat by their own volition. I agree that you need some sort of incentive in order to change behavior.
    In my own experience it has been interesting to see how the media has played a role in this topic. I feel as though it has become a very polarized topic with people fighting strongly for their opinion. I have seen videos of people discussing the health and climate benefits of giving up meat and I have seen other videos claiming that eating meat no worse for the environment and is just as healthy. Some say a paleo diet is the best because we would eat pure food from the earth like our ancestors did. While it appears that eating food from the Earth should be good for the environment, it is actually worse because most people don’t have a farm in their backyard to get fresh food. Paleo emphasizes eating animal products which causes more livestock farms and transportation of food from these farms. In a world full of media swarming with millions of opinions, it can be hard to find the truth.
    I think it will be interesting to see how eating habits change in the next 5-10 years as the younger generations transition to a diet with less meat. I also think policy in this area needs to be well thought through because there are, as you mention, so many factors at play with demographics, political feasibility, and economics. Great job overall Luke, I really enjoyed this piece!

  6. Hi Luke! This was a great read! When I became vegetarian, I wasn’t sure how much of an individual impact it would have. I had no idea how much it reduces your individual carbon footprint until reading this! The difference in weekly CO2 emissions between omnivores and vegetarians was incredible to me! I completely understand the feeling of not knowing if your individual actions are really worth anything in the big picture. I think it is easy to feel this way with a lot of sustainable choices, whether that is with diet changes, reducing single use plastic consumption, or taking public transportation; we can make these changes to our own daily lives, but how do we know that it is making a real difference? While it is totally understandable to feel this way, especially with things like plastic use, where large corporations are responsible for a large majority of pollution, with something like diet, where there is such a large individual difference, I am curious to see how the rise in plant-based diets influences greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years. I agree that federal incentives like implementing subsidies on alternative proteins and imposing the “sin taxes” that you mentioned on animal products like beef could be ways that consumption patterns are changed. Thanks for posting!

  7. I especially loved your statistic saying “9.6 kg of CO2 are emitted for every 1000 calories of beef compared to proteins like pork, poultry, and vegetables, which emit 2.0, 1.5, and 0.3 kg/1000 calories respectively.” I think a very common argument against a plant based diet is that you have to eat so much more and the food has to travel so far (farm raised beef is always in season, vegetables are not) that the emitted CO2 is basically equivalent. This data shows that you can create a plant-based diet for much less environmental impact while getting the same amount of calories. As the climate gets more unpredictable, we will need to find ways to grow produce in unideal environments (i.e. very efficient greenhouses). This will allow for local produce in every environment and reduce the travel emissions required for a plant-based diet. Overall, you did an amazing job of describing the benefits of eating plant-based. I understand the being vegetarian or vegan is not possible for some, but any reduction in red meat consumption can help reduce your individual footprint. And honestly, we’re going to have to reduce of reliance on animal products due to climate change eventually so why not start now?

  8. I really enjoyed reading this post, primarily because I had given little thought previously to how the government can influence personal decisions, such as dietary habits. This post has really shifted my perspective on dietary choices by highlighting the influence of government policies. Before reading this, I mainly saw diet changes as individual decisions. However, the discussion of taxing beef and subsidizing alternative proteins shows how policy can drive broader shifts in consumption habits. Additionally, the mention of demographic trends, such as the higher beef consumption among older males contrasted with the younger demographic leading plant-based diets, is a statistic I was unaware of before and leads me to wonder whether this is because younger generations have grown up during a time where environmental concerns and the effect of eating beef on personal carbon emissions have been highlighted by the public. This article has expanded my understanding of the connection between individual choices and policy interventions in shaping our diets.

  9. As a society, I think we are in a good position to reduce beef consumption, and while I don’t agree with a “sin tax” on beef for the reasons you mentioned, I think subsidizing alternative meats would be a strong step. I also think emphasizing alternative meats or vegetables to make the same recipes people are used to is a strong step as well. Since it seems that a lot of the beef consumption is in older generations, I think it can be assumed that they are cooking heritage meals, and I think that a lot of older generations would be open to swapping beef in those recipes, especially if the swap would have potential health benefits. High blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes are just a few common ailments that I think would motivate older generations to swap beef if doing so would benefit them. I also think subsidizing the alternative meat industry would be really beneficial. Coming from a family with high meat consumption, my family was excited to try Beyond Burgers to compare, and I think if these were more affordable options, we would be more likely to purchase them instead of real beef. Overall, I’m excited for the future of meat consumption because I think as a society we are shifting to reducing it already!

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