A vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a meat eater in a Prius

One Gorgeous Cow by Pikaluk.

That’s the assertion made by author and food activist Michael Pollan while speaking on a panel as part of last weekend’s PopTech 2009 conference.
What a notion!

The EPA estimates that a 2009 Toyota Prius generates about 0.56 lb. of CO2 emissions for each mile driven (taking into account all aspects of operating a vehicle but not its manufacture). Assuming 12,000 miles driven annually, a Prius generates approximately 3.5 tons of emissions each year. While the 2009 Hummer H2 eludes EPA testing through its truck classification, independent emissions testing reports estimate that the HUMMER H2 expels 1.46 lbs of emissions per mile. Multiply this by the 12,000 estimated annual miles and the H2 delivers nearly 9 tons of annual emissions.

Similar methodology can be used to calculate the carbon footprint of our diet. Fossil fuels go in (feed, fertilizer, processes) and emissions are released (adjusted for both plants’ absorption of CO2 and the negatively impactful effect of methane gas released by farm animals).

A typical American diet gets 47 percent of its calories from animal sources, resulting in a carbon footprint of 2.52 tons per year. By far the worst emitter in our diet is beef, so if a diet is especially heavy in red meat rather than fish or chicken, you can add another ton to the year’s emissions. Vegetarians can easily knock a ton off, and vegans drop another ton.

At 9 tons from the vehicle and a half ton from the diet, the vegan in the the Hummer is contributing 9.5 annual tons of CO2 while the meat-eater in the Prius generates about 6 tons. So strictly speaking, there is a bit of hyperbole to Michael Pollan’s statement (although on a per household basis or with an especially carnivorous eater it holds true), but it still makes the point that small shifts in diet can have a big impact on our environment.

Grain-fed beef results in 3.04 lb. of CO2 emitted per 100 calories. Compare that with the CO2 emitted by 100 calories of chicken (0.37), apples (0.06), eggs (0.64), and soy (0.01). With the carbon equivalent of a gallon of gas in every hamburger, beef is pretty much the Hummer of the food world. Giving up that burger on a weekday or practicing meat-free Mondays as they do in England is the equivalent of riding your bicycle to work a few times a week.

Of course all of this begs the real question: do vegans even drive Hummers?

This low carbon diet calculator can help you compare the relative carbon impacts of your food choices.

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9 Responses to A vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a meat eater in a Prius

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  4. Janice says:

    Bob-
    i agree with both the criticism and the point you are making.
    Yes, this was somewhat simplistic. But the point was to get people thinking about the issues, so it was successful on that level. One problem with any analysis of the impact is how much reach there is in food production. We don’t want to start down the road of scrutinizing at a level of detail that gets us to take our eyes off the real issues. I am sure that the shoe polish of the gas station attendant that filled the tank of the feed truck has plenty of negative environmental impact, but even so…

    You’re right about the need to approach the food system from a point of common interest between vegans and omnivores. The new book from Jonathan Safer Foer, Eating Animals, has lots to offer but it is lost in the polarizing approach.

  5. Bob Spline says:

    Similar methodology can be used to calculate the carbon footprint of our diet. Fossil fuels go in (feed, fertilizer, processes) and emissions are released (adjusted for both plants’ absorption of CO2 and the negatively impactful effect of methane gas released by farm animals).

    This is a pretty breathtakingly simple, and so inaccurate, statement. 🙂

    I understand the desire to prove this point, however there are many other factors to consider. One is simply that many health conscious people are choosing meat from local, sustainable pasture based farms, which means that they are actually carbon negative. Including the poop, since its being used to help grow plants (as composted manure). Carbon emitted as a result of transport is minimized here as well, since here you’re neither shipping in fertilizer or shipping out the meat (very far, anyway), which is another factor you failed to include in the equation (i.e., as someone I know said, “I wonder if they factor in the carbon footprint of shipping veggies thousands of miles in the winter?”)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzdSWh150bk
    If we’re going to discuss sustainable living, I believe we need to get away from these polarized arguments, and move towards talking about HOW we talk about sustainability. You will never, ever convert the world to veganism, so if you are really concerned (as am I) about making things better for our kids, I think we need to find some common ground (like talking about permaculture and slow food) and stop in-fighting on this eating of meat issue. I purposely avoid this argument with my vegan friends because neither of us will win it. Instead we talk about things we both can agree on, like overall sustainability, including the eating of meat AND the vegan lifestyle.
    http://beforeitsnews.com/sports/2015/06/india-vs-pakistan-hockey-live-stream-26-june-2015-2617730.html

  6. VeganGuy says:

    great article! nice to see people thinking about the total cost and total impact of things.

    One other interesting tidbit if people are doing a full calculation – in addition to the environmental impact of the TONS of cow poop, it is also amazing how inefficient it is to raise animals on large factory farms for their meat. I’ve heard it takes roughly 10 lbs of grain to generate 1 lb of cow meat. Why not just grow grains and eat them directly?

    Never met a vegan with a hummer, but it’s funny to think about it!

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  9. Lori says:

    This is a great, thought-provoking post. When I saw what this was about, I thought, “Do vegans even drive Hummers?” It made laugh to see you posing this at the end.

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