How To Personally Cut Greenhouse Gases

Listen up.  Let’s see how many of you can correctly answer the question that was posed by writers Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner in their 2009 book, SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.

Q: What’s the best thing a person can do personally to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

Possible Answers:

A. Drive a hybrid car
B. Eat one less hamburger a week
C. Buy all your food from local sources

Give yourself a minute to process before looking down at the answer.

And the answer is — drum-roll please — “B.”

SuperFreakonomics authors explain:

It is generally believed that cars and trucks and airplanes contribute an ungodly share of greenhouse gases. This has recently led many right-minded people to buy a Prius or other hybrid car. But every time a Prius owner drives to the grocery store, she may be canceling out its emission-reducing benefit, at least if she shops in the meat section.

Just think, according to an article in Scientific American, producing that less-than-adequate slab of ground meat that you will slap on your lunch bread “releases as much greenhouse gas as driving a 3,000-pound car nearly 10 miles.”  The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report from 2006 found that meat production today contributes between 14 and 22 percent of the 36 billion tons of “CO2-equivalent” greenhouse gases the world produces every year.

What comes as a surprise is that the “locavore” movement may not have the positive impact we hoped it would have because the majority of greenhouse gases are generated during food production, more than 80 percent in fact, and not during transportation.  Only 11 percent of food emissions are generated during the transportation and delivery. And big farms, according to the book authors, and to our chagrin, appear to be more efficient at keeping the amounts of gas generated down during food production than small farms.

To be clear, we do not for one second see this as a redeeming quality for industrial factory farms.  In fact, given the myriad of problems they create, with indiscriminate use of antibiotics on healthy animals and environmental pollution, which may cancel their greenhouse efficiency, to say nothing of the animal abuse and suffering that goes on, we rally against such organization of food production.

But what the authors’ statistics tell us is that when it comes to cutting greenhouse gases, eating chicken, fish, eggs or veggies just one (1) extra day per week instead of beef makes you far greener than sporting the latest hybrid while self-congratulating your locavore ways.  Want to really make a difference?  Try eliminating all meat products for at least one day a week for healthier living, greater environmental impact and humane reasons.

Since lawmakers and industry don’t act, the best way cut greenhouse emissions begins with you!

Go veg!

Or, if you are like me, incapable of sacrificing lamb for lettuce, take heart — try switching to chicken or fish.  While disconcerting in its own ways, poultry or fish production is not nearly as polluting as beef production, so you will still be making a difference.

Eat less meat!

  • Tee

    Stop exhaling would be the number one way to curb greenhouse gasses. Every time you exhale you put several pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. Anything and everything that respires puts CO2 into the atmosphere.

    The second best way to curb greenhouse gasses is plant a tree. Plants all use CO2 and other “polluting” gasses for photosynthesis, cleaning the air and returning oxygen to the atmosphere.

    Cripes, I learned all of that in third grade. Guess the education system these days really is broken.

  • Boris Gitlin

    I go back to the personal choices we make daily. In reality, only few will make a real difference.

    While I like carbon credits and tree planting through donations, I feel that these are often “feel-good” schemes. There are plenty of reports about the lack of transparency among organizations providing these services and many of them appear to collect money without producing any significant results. Until such efforts are measurable and independently verifiable, I wouldn’t put my trust there.