Want to help save the planet but not sure where to start? It could be as simple as looking at your diet. Top scientist Sarah Bridle reveals 12 easy, climate-friendly food swaps you can make today
Did you know that a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions – a main cause for climate change – come from food?
A greenhouse gas is any gaseous compound released into the atmosphere that is capable of absorbing infrared radiation, which therefore traps and holds heat within the atmosphere. This is ultimately what leads to global warming.
a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions – a main cause for climate change – come from food
You may not think that what you choose to eat directly impacts the environment, but think again. Changing just a few things in our diet is actually a simple way we can all make a real difference in helping to save the planet.
As a consumer, it isn’t usually possible to know whether one piece of beef is better for the planet than another. But actually, there are big differences.
For example, beef from dairy herds causes about half the climate impact of beef from non-dairy herds, because the impacts get shared out between the beef and the milk.
Similarly, how can you know whether a particular fruit has come by air or by sea? Some companies are starting to put the climate impacts onto their packets. Look out for ‘grams of carbon dioxide equivalent, or gCO2e’.
Some companies are starting to put the climate impacts onto their packets
If all producers did this you could know the details for your particular choices, and buy from the food producers who are already doing a lot to reduce their impact on the planet.
If you want this to happen, then support these producers who already provide the information. Write to your MP and supermarket asking for mandatory climate impact labelling of foods.
It’s time to get climate-savvy about your food choices by considering these switches and ideas….
#1 Swap a Latte for an Americano
A large latte can contain nearly a pint of milk, which causes ten times the climate impact of a regular coffee (containing a tablespoon of milk).
The quantity of milk is much more important for the climate than the milk carton, coffee cup or boiling the water, which means that even reducing the amount of milk e.g. by switching from a latte to a cappuccino, will make a difference.
Even producing and transporting the coffee from overseas typically causes at least ten times less greenhouse gases than producing the milk.
#2 Swap dairy milk for plant milk
Plant milks are becoming increasingly popular, with a range of options in store. The climate impact of plant milk varies depending on the production, transportation and packaging, but generally causes less than half the climate impact of dairy milk.
switching to plant milk will also more than halve the climate impact of your breakfast
Changing the type of milk you use in tea or coffee can be an unsettling change first thing in the day. So, first check whether you’re using a lot of milk elsewhere. For example most people use ten times as much milk in a bowl of cereal than in a cup of tea.
If that’s the case for you, then focus on your cereal milk first: could you use less milk? Lots of people leave milk at the bottom of the bowl. If you were to halve the amount of milk you use in your cereal, you will almost halve the climate impact of your bowl.
Alternatively, switching to plant milk will also more than halve the climate impact of your breakfast.
#3 Swap a cheese sandwich for a nut butter sandwich
A peanut butter and jam sandwich causes one fifth of the climate impact of a cheese sandwich.
Alternatively, you can halve the climate impact of your cheese sandwich by switching from two medium slices of cheese (50 grams) to one thin slice of cheese (20 grams), even if you add a generous spoon of pickle or relish to spice it up.
#4 Swap an oven baked potato for a microwaved potato
Did you know that switching the oven on for two hours can cause the same climate impact as two large lattes or five medium slices of cheese?
You can reduce the climate impact of your jacket potato by ten times by switching from oven to microwave, from cheese to relish and from butter to vegetable spread.
Even cooking for two people at once, instead of for one, can halve the climate impact of your spud, because the oven impact is shared out between two people.
Alternatively, cooking the potato in the microwave and just crisping it up in the oven at the end will also help.
#5 Go easy on the cheesy pizza
A generous sprinkling of cheese (60 grams) can cause more climate change than the pizza base, tomato puree and oven-use combined, even if you’re only cooking for one.
Going easy on the cheese (20 grams) and cooking for two, halves the climate change caused by your pizza.
Vegan cheese causes about ten times less climate change than dairy cheese
Vegan cheese causes about ten times less climate change than dairy cheese. So, you could shave off another 30 per cent from your climate impact by swapping dairy for vegan cheese, even if you add in some sweetcorn and ground almonds to add in some extra nutrition.
#6 Swap out-of-season strawberries for bananas
Berries in winter are often transported by airplane, which causes one hundred times the climate change of transporting the same weight of food the same distance by boat.
You can help the planet by switching to foods that can sit in the hold of a ship for a few weeks without spoiling, such as apples, bananas or oranges.
Berries in winter are often transported by airplane, which causes one hundred times the climate change
Even taking into account growing, packing and transportation, a banana from the other side of the world causes ten times less climate change than strawberries flown from a nearby continent.
#7 Swap out some beef for beans or lentils in a spag Bol
Prime beef and lamb cause the most climate change of all the commonly eaten foods, largely because cows and sheep burp methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
swapping half the beef for beans will reduce emissions by 40 per cent
A single portion of spaghetti Bolognese causes more climate change than a whole day of food for the average person in the world. Switching beef for the same weight of cooked beans or lentils typically causes 80 per cent less climate change, even if the beans come out of a tin can.
Alternatively, swapping half the beef for beans will reduce emissions by 40 per cent. Switching from beef to chicken causes almost as much reduction as switching from beef to beans, with a 70 per cent reduction.
#8 Swap chicken for Quorn in your tikka masala curry
Even in a creamy tikka masala, chicken causes more than half the climate impact. So consider reducing or swapping the chicken for a lower impact alternative, like chickpeas or Quorn.
Typical chicken causes seven times the climate impact of frozen Quorn. So swapping chicken for Quorn halves the climate impact of your curry (assuming typical amounts of other ingredients including cream, passata and simmering).
#9 Swap green beans for seasonal greens
Green beans are often imported by air, so consider serving up something local instead.
For example, chopping up cabbage small and frying it in vegetable oil causes one sixth the climate change of boiled green beans, if those beans are flown in from a neighboring continent like Africa to the UK.
#10 Swap butter for vegetable spread
Depending on how much butter you get through every week, you might make a significant difference to your climate impact by switching to vegetable spread.
Butter causes six times the climate impact of vegetable spread, so you can shave off 30 per cent of your jam-on-toast emissions by making that switch.
Butter causes six times the climate impact of vegetable spread
If you want to go ultra-frugal you could also lighten up on the toasting too. Jam, veg spread and bread causes less than half the climate change of jam and butter on toast.
#11 Swap egg for aquafaba
It was only recently discovered that the liquid leftover from cooking chickpeas has eggwhite-like properties. This ‘aquafaba’ can be whipped up and baked as a meringue, or whipped and added to sugar and cocoa to make a chocolate mousse.
Aquafaba mayonnaise is also on sale in some places. Chocolate mousse made with aquafaba causes less than half that made from egg, assuming you were anyway using the chickpeas for something else (chickpea tikka masala anyone? – see above).
#12 Drinks on tap
Packaging causes ten to 30 per cent of the climate impact of a beer or glass of wine, so consider drinking the same amount from larger containers (which use less packaging) or even from a tap.
Tap water is the lowest emissions drink of all, so resist the pressure to buy fancy bottled water in a restaurant. Instead ask for a carafe of tap water, or ask for a top-up in your own refillable bottle.
This food switch information uses the latest available data for the climate impact of different foods. But technology and farming practices are changing all the time. Some producers use methods that are better for the climate than others.
Food and Climate Change Without the Hot Air by Sarah Bridle is published by UIT Cambridge and available from all good bookshops, priced at £19.99 in paperback and free as an ebook.