At least 20 percent of the American population are responsible for half of greenhouse gas emissions polluting the atmosphere, with high levels of beef consumption the greatest factor contributing to global warming, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
Conducted by researchers from Tulane University and the University of Michigan, the study examined what foods Americans are demanding most and the environmental impact of these items.
They looked at how the production of over 300 foods affects the environment and compared it with a database surveying 16,000 U.S. adults on their typical daily diet.
Diets were ranked from low to high, based on greenhouse emissions, and divided into five groups. The highest group, 20 percent, was shown to account for 46 percent of “total diet-related greenhouse emissions,” the researchers wrote.
Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to climate change, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. They include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases. Human development has rapidly increased these gas levels in the atmosphere.
Beef consumption accounted for 72 percent of the emission difference between the highest group and the lowest, with their emission rate eight times greater than the lowest group.
“Reducing the impact of our diets — by eating fewer calories and less animal-based foods — could achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States,” Martin Heller, the co-principal investigator from the University of Michigan, said in a statement. “It’s climate action that is accessible to everyone, because we all decide on a daily basis what we eat.”
If Americans in the highest-impact group changed their diet to eat fewer calories and less meat, it would eliminate, in one day, greenhouse emissions equivalent to 661 million passenger-vehicle miles, the authors wrote.