• Researchers looked at what would happen if 54 high-income nations switched to a plant-based diet
  • They found a 'double effect' of reducing emissions and increasing carbon capture
  • 'It's a remarkable opportunity for climate mitigation,' the study's senior author said

How can switching to a plant-based diet benefit the planet? It may have the "double climate dividend" of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and even increasing carbon capture, a new study has found.

Agriculture is actually a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. In the U.S. for instance, the agriculture sector accounted for 10% of the nation's total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Such agricultural sources include methane emissions from livestock such as cattle and even management practices on agricultural soils that end up resulting in emissions of nitrous oxide.

For their new study, published Monday in Nature Food, an international team of researchers had a closer look at what would happen if 54 high-income countries shifted from an animal-based diet to the EAT-Lancet "planetary health diet." This diet is high in plant-based sources and is represented by "half a plate of fruits, vegetables and nuts." It is said to be good for both health and the environment.

As Leiden University noted in a news release, the area required to care for animals is quite large, consuming 80% of all agricultural land. This translates to about 35% of the planet's habitable land.

"We looked at higher income regions because they have plenty of plant-based options for protein and other nutritional needs," Paul Behrens of Leiden University, the senior author of the study, said in the news release. "In lower-income regions, people consume fewer animal proteins but often rely on them for their health."

The researchers found that the switch would reduce the countries' annual agricultural production emissions by 61%. And if the land spared from agriculture would be restored to its natural state, the shift could even "remove another 98.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by the end of the century," Leiden University noted.

Simply put, shifting to a plant-based diet would reduce carbon emissions from agriculture. Moreover, allowing the land to grow back its natural vegetation may help remove the carbon dioxide that's already in the atmosphere.

"This amount could potentially fulfill high-income nations' future sum of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) obligations under the principle of equal per capita CDR responsibilities," the researchers wrote.

Importantly, it could help prevent the planet's warming from going more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the university noted.

Zhongxiao Sun of the China Agricultural University, another lead author of the study, noted in the news release how such a shift could "help society stay within environmental limits."

Behrens further noted that people "don't have to be purists" about the shift and that even simply limiting one's animal consumption may help.

"It's a remarkable opportunity for climate mitigation," Behrens said, adding: "But it would also have massive benefits for water quality, biodiversity, air pollution, and access to nature, to name just a few. There are hundreds of papers showing how important it is for us to be in nature for our health and these changes would open up vast tracts of land for rewilding close to where people live."

Representation Veganliftz, Pixabay