REPORT: Diet Changes Cut U.S. Climate Change Pollution Equal to 57 Million Cars Over Past Decade

Reduction Largely the Result of Americans Eating Almost 20 percent Less Beef

WASHINGTON – Changes in Americans’ diets from 2005 to 2014—particularly a 19 percent drop in beef consumption—resulted in a reduction in climate pollution equivalent to the tailpipe emissions created by 57 million cars in one year, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Whether we realized it or not, Americans have been fighting climate change with our forks,” said Sujatha Jahagirdar, policy specialist in NRDC’s Food and Agriculture Program. “As a nation, we have been increasingly eating less beef—a trend that’s not just better for our health, but the health of the planet. By continuing to eat more plant-based food and less animal products, we can continue this forward progress in kitchens across the country.”

Less Beef, Less Carbon found that a 19 percent decrease in beef consumption from 2005 to 2014 is the biggest driver behind a 10 percent per capita decrease in diet-related climate pollution during the same time period. Americans could have cut climate pollution even further, if not for a simultaneous increase in the consumption of other carbon-intensive foods like cheese, yogurt and butter.

Despite this significant reduction in beef consumption, the United States still consumes more beef and veal than most of the world. And in 2014, beef remained responsible for 34 percent of the average American’s diet-related greenhouse gas emissions. 

By eating more fruits and vegetables—and making even modest reductions in the amount of  meat and dairy we consume—we can make a bigger dent in climate change pollution moving forward, according to the report. In fact, if every American ate just one-third less beef per year, it would cut climate pollution equal to that created by 10 million cars every year.

Consumers can make these changes right in their own kitchens. Restaurants can help by putting more fruits and vegetables at the center of the plate. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture can recommend less red meat in the nutritional guidelines it issues for the National School Lunch Program when it updates them in 2021.


While Americans’ consumption of less beef was the biggest driver of diet-related reductions in climate pollution, it was not the only change with a positive impact. A reduction in consumption of the following top 10 foods contributed to the climate change pollution reductions over the past several decades:

  1. Beef
  2. Orange juice
  3. Pork
  4. Plain whole milk
  5. Chicken
  6. High fructose corn sweetener
  7. Nonfat dry milk
  8. Canned tomatoes
  9. Frozen potatoes
  10. Fresh head lettuce


Some foods require more land, water, fertilizer and energy than others from production to the consumer. This results in greater climate change pollution as well.

For example, livestock raised for meat or dairy products release large amounts of methane—a climate change pollutant 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term—from their digestive tracts. On top of that, livestock require large amounts of animal feed, which is greenhouse gas-intensive to grow.

In contrast, fruits, vegetables and legumes are much less greenhouse gas-intensive to produce. This is largely because eating plants doesn’t also require growing feed crops, which require large amounts of fertilizer and energy to cultivate.

Less Beef, Less Carbon tracked the per capita change in consumption of 197 major food items tracked by the USDA.

Read the full report here:

Infographic on the top 10 climate-damaging foods here:


The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

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