A weakness for booze and sweets, not meat, increases household carbon footprints

Let them eat cake?
Let them eat cake?
Image: Reuters
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Meat eaters rejoice! A new scientific study suggests that the eating of flesh alone cannot explain differences in the carbon footprints (CF) of various households.

Instead, the true culprits of elevated carbon footprints, based on a new study in the journal One Earth, seem to be sweets, frequenting restaurants often, and swilling booze. ”Meat consumption only weakly explains the difference between high- and low-CF households and is not localized to any particularly easily targeted group,” an international team of researchers concluded after examining the eating habits of 60,000 Japanese households and comparing this information with other relevant data.

That’s not to say that you should now live on a diet of steak, which would be bad for your health as well as the environment. “Meat is a high carbon footprint food. Replacing red meat consumption with white meat and vegetables will lower a family’s carbon footprint,” lead author Keiichiro Kanemoto of the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto explained in a statement.

But the results do indicate that the consumption picture is more complicated than researchers previously imagined. “We find that while nearly all households can reduce their CF by eating less meat, higher-CF households are not distinguished by excessive meat consumption relative to other households but rather have higher household CF intensity because of elevated consumption in other areas including restaurants, confectionery, and alcohol,” the researchers write.

While the study is based only on Japanese households, the results are meaningful globally because the typical Japanese diet is in line with nutrition recommendations in many nations, the researchers explain. Issues that arise among the Japanese thus indicate significant considerations for global policy-makers formulating approaches to food and consumption.

Japan also has a lot of region-specific data on food consumption, demographics, and income that makes it easier to consider many factors influencing habits in combination, rather than examining food in isolation. The team was able to analyze the carbon footprints of households as determined by the volume and composition of food consumed and the environmental intensity of that food, along with household income, geography, and other variables to get a more granular picture of the elements influencing high-carbon-footprint households.

In doing so, they both confirmed past studies and added a new, important gloss. “We find that consumption of specific food categories is key to understanding household CF,” the researcher write. In other words, we each can make an environmental difference with our choices (albeit a small one).

But formulating national consumption policies that encourage lower household carbon footprints won’t be as simple as getting everyone to quit ribs and eat their vegetables instead. As countries around the world consider dietary shifts for health and environmental reasons, they will need to focus on sugar, alcohol, and dining out, as well.

“If we think of a carbon tax, it might be wiser to target sweets and alcohol if we want a progressive system,” Kanemoto urges. “If we are serious about reducing our carbon footprints, then our diets must change. Our findings suggest that high carbon footprints are not only a problem for a small number of meat lovers in Japan. It might be better to target less nutritious foods that are excessively consumed in some populations.”