Climate crisis: Two years of vegan living cancelled out by one long-haul flight, study suggests

‘Over-consumption is linked to environmental disaster,’ say researchers listing best ways to reduce emissions after lockdown

Harry Cockburn
Wednesday 20 May 2020 16:44 BST
Taking one long-haul return flight produces more emissions than are saved by two people going vegan for a year, the study indicates
Taking one long-haul return flight produces more emissions than are saved by two people going vegan for a year, the study indicates (Getty)

The historic falls in global greenhouse gas emissions during the coronavirus lockdowns around the world are expected to swiftly return to high levels as restrictions ease, but scientists are urging governments and the public to adopt measures to reduce their environmental impact.

A team of international researchers, including scientists at the University of Leeds, have used 7,000 studies from across the globe to develop a list of the most effective changes to household consumption to cut our carbon footprints.

The research team states that “household activities account for around two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions”, and suggests as governments around the world reopen economies, consideration of these options would help to inform decisions that could impact the climate emergency.

The team measured the potential for emissions cuts through changes in consumption of food, transport and housing and listed the top 10 ways people can reduce emissions.

They are to:

1. Live car free

2. Use battery electric vehicles

3. Make one fewer long-haul return flight a year

4. Use renewable energy

5. Use public transport

6. Refurbishment and renovation of buildings

7. Eat vegan diet

8. Use heat pumps

9. Use improved cooking equipment

10. Use renewable based heating

The researchers said implementing all of the measures could reduce, on average, up to 9 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person, per year in a high-consuming, high-income context.

But they warned “existing systemic barriers need to be removed” to allow an easy shift to low-carbon consumption, and called on governments to implement policies promoting low emissions.

By far the greatest means for individuals to cut emissions was to live car free, with the annual saving per individual per year being the equivalent of 2.04 tonnes of CO2 (also accounting for other greenhouse gases).

By not taking one return long-haul flight a year, each person can save 1.68 tonnes of CO2, while going vegan apparently saves the equivalent of 0.8 tonnes of CO2 per year. The data suggests one long-haul holiday cancels out a year of two people going vegan, in terms of emissions.

University of Leeds researcher, Diana Ivanova, who led the study, said: “The top 10 options shown from this research are available to us now, without the need for development of expensive new technologies. Focusing on energy demand reduction clearly presents the lowest mitigation challenges and provides huge potential mitigation impacts.

“The recent coronavirus crisis lockdown has shown the world that options such as living car-free are possible and have a huge impact on the environment. This period of low carbon emissions should motivate governments to strive for strong environmental policies that enable new ways of consuming.”

She added: “Over-consumption is linked to environmental disaster and this study shows the options we should be focusing on in order to tackle the climate emergency.”

The research team noted the average carbon footprint in some continents is more than four times what it needs to be, per person, to meet the climate target for 2030.

Carbon footprints are extremely unequally distributed, with wealthier people and countries releasing far more greenhouse gases into the environment than individuals in poorer countries.

The scientists said the adoption of the measures suggested in their list, starting at government policy level, “would have a truly significant impact on achievement of climate targets across the world”.

They said enacting the policies needed to help people take up the measures would help to enable “a new lower carbon normality”, rather than returning to the pre-coronavirus “business as usual”.

The study is published in Environmental Research Letters.

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