Based on earlier research for ‘SuperWijzer’, a website and smartphone app providing consumer advice on meat and dairy products , in this study CE Delft calculates the overall environmental impact associated with Dutch protein consumption in the form of meat, eggs, cheese, milk and meat substitutes. The environmental footprint was calculated for the following five themes: Climate, Land use, Acidification, Eutrophication and Biodiversity.
For greenhouse gas emissions the aggregate impact of meat, egg and dairy consumption is 21.5 Mt CO2-eq. This is around 10% of total Dutch annual emissions and roughly equal to the country’s passenger car emissions. For land use the footprint is 87% of the total area of the Netherlands. Most of this is due to land use for overseas production of animal feed. The other environmental impacts are also fairly substantial. With respect to acidification, meat, egg and dairy consumption accounts for one-quarter of the national total. The impact on global eutrophication is around two-thirds of the national total, with approximately the same figure holding for the impact on global biodiversity.
The ‘SuperWijzer’ calculations on 120 protein chains had already established that there are major differences in the environmental footprint of the various protein sources, with non-meat protein generally scoring best and certain types of beef worst.
Improvement scenarios yield substantial gains
Lower protein consumption is better for one’s health and on top of that the environmental footprint of alternative protein sources varies enormously. It is therefore well conceivable as well as good for the environment if consumers opt for less and superior kinds of protein products. This study does the sums for a number of scenarios in which consumers opt for more environmentally benign protein sources. Even if consumers stick with their favourite kind of meat but opt for an ‘eco-variety’, this already leads to 20% lower greenhouse gas emissions. Scenarios whereby consumers also opt for more non-meat proteins, higher-quality types of meat and/or reduced protein intake reduce these emissions by 32-55%. A completely vegetarian diet yields the greatest gains: a 70% reduction. In this sector substantial environmental improvements appear feasible through relatively limited changes in consumer purchasing behaviour. There is, in other words, still plenty of ‘low-hanging fruit’.