You’ve probably heard the term “carbon footprint” associated with climate change, but what is a carbon footprint? A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases produced to directly and indirectly support human activities such as electricity use, heating your home, or driving your car. It is, in essence, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted during the generation of these activities.
A person’s carbon footprint is an aggregate measure, or total, of greenhouse gas emissions that individuals directly and indirectly generate over a period of time. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere and cause climate change. Emissions estimates for each greenhouse gas, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), are available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A carbon footprint is measured in CO2e, or “carbon dioxide equivalent,” which describes how much global warming a certain type and amount of greenhouse gas would cause if all other greenhouse gases were also expressed as a CO2 concentration. For example, the global warming potential of methane is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide on a 100-year basis. Although emissions from transportation and electricity use comprise some 70% of U.S. emissions, our food choices also play a key role within this category.
Why Does Your Carbon Footprint Matter?
Your carbon footprint is an index of your ecological impact. The larger your carbon footprint, the larger your influence on climate change. We all have a responsibility to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to minimize their contribution to global warming. By lowering our individual footprints, we also reduce the collective threat posed by rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
You can lower your carbon footprint in many ways, including reducing your energy use, choosing low-carbon transportation options, and changing the foods you eat. We all have a role to play in protecting our planet for future generations by making informed choices. Keep reading to learn more about how food contributes to climate change.
Impact of Food on Climate Change
Food is one of the most important and direct contributors to climate change. Fuel burned during farming, harvesting, processing, and transport of the food we eat emits greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O).
These emissions comprise 45% of all United States greenhouse gas emissions. Methane comes from livestock, while nitrous oxide is emitted during fertilizer use. In addition, several foods require large amounts of resources, such as beef, pork, lamb, and cheese. These products are associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions than alternatives, including chicken, eggs, and plant-based protein sources.
Impact on Animal Species
Livestock production has a negative environmental impact beyond the emissions associated with meat, milk, and egg production. High demand for animal-based food products leads to deforestation to free land for grazing animals.
Additionally, livestock raised for human consumption often require large amounts of water and feed grown using synthetic fertilizers that can be energy-intensive to produce. These practices threaten soil fertility, water quality, and biodiversity. As a result, habitat loss leads to the endangerment of plant and animal species throughout the world.
Impact on Water Resources
Global food production accounts for 70% of freshwater use worldwide, with 30-35% related to animal production. Converting land to grow feed crops reduces natural carbon sinks that contribute to climate change mitigation.
In addition, water quality is negatively affected by fertilizer runoff and wastewater releases from feedlots and dairy operations, leading to eutrophication of our waterways. Excess nutrients in the water enhance algae growth, creating many problems for humans and animals alike.
Bottom Line on Carbon Footprints
Eating habits that rely more heavily on plant-based protein sources instead of animal meat can significantly reduce your carbon footprint.
However, it’s important to remember that the environmental impact is not limited to the production process. Transportation, packaging, and other post-production factors contribute to greenhouse gas emissions in addition to food production. Recently published research highlights the comprehensive nature of food’s contribution to climate change.
While this research is important, it doesn’t focus on individual eating habits or dietary choices. For that reason, talking about how food affects the environment with your family and friends is an essential aspect of making informed decisions.