A Plant-Based Diet Could Be the Single Most Important Personal Switch We Can Make to Achieve Net Zero, But the Choice is as Personal as the Change

Diets with a high proportion of meat and their associated emissions are playing a part in climate change, but how can this change without overstepping in people’s personal lives?
August 10, 2022

The power of plant-based foods

Due to the high carbon (and water) footprint of the production of meat and dairy, the amount of meat consumed in the western diet significantly contributes to climate change. The percentage of animal products that need a lot of resources in a person's diet generally, and specifically from ruminant cattle, are a major demand-side factor that affects greenhouse gas emissions.[i] According to the most recent data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock emits 7.1 Gt CO2-eq yr-1, or 14.5% of all emissions caused by humans.[ii] If we all embraced a more plant-focused diet, the EAT Lancet report, published in January 2019, said that planetary health would be altered.[iii] This is acknowledged by the UK Committee on Climate Change, which suggests legislation to encourage consumers to choose more plant-based foods as a means of achieving net zero emissions.[iv]

Source: Ingredients Network

It’s hard to miss the explosion of plant-based alternatives that have hit supermarket shelves in recent years. According to an analysis by Mintel, sales of meat-free products in the UK have increased by an impressive 40%, from £582 million in 2014 to an estimated £816 million in 2019 and are projected to reach more than £1.1 billion by 2024.[v] The market for plant-based milk substitutes in the UK was estimated to be worth £260 million in 2019 and is projected to grow to $565 million by 2025, more than doubling that amount. Additionally, a 14.4% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) is predicted for the global market for plant-based meat, which is expected to expand from US$ 13.6 billion in 2020 to US$ 35 billion in 2027.[vi] Whilst the data on sales collected by Mintel only covers as far as 2019, their most recent analysis outlines that COVID-19 has had a lingering effect on consumer desire to make healthier choices. That in turn has translated to a desire for more nutrient rich food that could drive a greater shift towards plant-based alternatives to meat.[vii]

So, the positives of a more plant-based diet are clear, whether it’s as a flexitarian or as a vegan a reduction in meat consumption has a lesser impact on our planet, but it remains a contentious issue. It is a subject that is deeply personal both in thought and practice and must be approached with a careful hand.

Dietary decisions

In many western eateries, supermarkets, psyches, and customs meat is seen as the default; through a range of behavioural economics-based "nudge" treatments, behavioural science has started to investigate ways to empower and encourage consumers to adopt more sustainable dietary decisions as the standard.[viii] Although there has been a lot of research on sustainability labels and iconography recently, descriptive consumer messaging provided at the time of purchase has received relatively little attention, the World Resources Institute (WRI) set out to change this.[ix] WRI’s methodology used two online survey-based randomised trials that looked at how customers' hypothetical menu choices were affected by descriptive messaging about the advantages of plant-based diets. Each of the ten messages that were offered to the participants conveyed a special (combination of) benefits to customers, such as flavour, environmental effect, health, and generosity. The findings indicate that descriptive sustainability messages delivered in a simulated restaurant menu selection scenario improve the levels of selection of vegetarian dishes, relative to a control group that did not receive any messages. To find out if and how this kind of messaging works in different circumstances in real-world settings, more research is required.

WRI’s climate-based messaging

Source: WRI

The top 5 messages were ‘Small changes, big impact’, ‘Joining a movement’, ‘Health and environment’, ‘Taste benefits’ and ‘A sustainable future’.[x] These messages saw between a 12.1% and 8.1% increase in the selection of plant-based options compared to the control group. Whilst the research provides a promising foundation to apply to real-world situations, factors like the expense of the choice, the consumption of the choice, and the company of the person making the choice, must all be explored.

The world’s first vegan football club

In 2017, Forest Green Rovers (FGR) were recognised as the world’s first vegan football club and received certification from the Vegan Society. This came after they replaced their stadium menu with a fully vegan alternative in 2015, but they have been very clear that they haven’t deserted the hearty favourites of many football fans across the country with pies and burgers still at the core of their offerings.[xi] On the success of their vegan venture, FGR said “We’ve already been commended at the British Pie Awards, and we picked up the Menu of the Year award from Sport and Leisure Catering Magazine.”.[xii] Motivated by the jaw dropping statistics they present on their site that ‘livestock produces just 18% of the calories and 37% of the protein people consume, but takes up more than 80% of all farmland’ FGR have seen a successful adoption of their plant-based endeavour with players and fans alike, to see it become a foundation of their footballing community.

Community isn’t just for football clubs

Whilst as a percentage of a business’s carbon footprint meat and other carbon intense foods are fairly limited; this does not mean they should be overlooked. Falling firmly within scope 1 emissions, onsite cafeterias provide a valuable start for the assertion of control over emissions. Not only this but the scale of dietary behaviour change that the CCC deem necessary to achieving net zero in the UK must start somewhere, attitudes spreading outwardly, organically, amongst a community also has to start somewhere so why not with you?


[i] Chatham House- Diet and Climate Change: Assessing Public Understanding and Behaviour

[ii] Ibid

[iii] EAT Lancet- Commission Summary Report

[iv] CCC- 6th Carbon Budget

[v] Mintel- Plant-Based Push: UK Sales of meat-free foods shot up 40% between 2014-19

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Mintel- 2021 Food & Drink Trends: Impact on Plant Based

[viii] WRI- Environmental messages promote plant-based food choices: an online restaurant menu study

[ix] Ibid

[x] Ibid

[xi] Forest Green Rovers- Vegan Food

[xii] Ibid

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Oscar Pusey
Research Analyst

Oscar is a recent graduate with a background in earth science. He is currently studying an MSc focussing on disaster responses, emergency planning and community resilience. His postgraduate research project will assess the link between climate crisis risk perception and attitudes to green energy projects. “Adapting to the climate crisis through the pursuit of net zero requires community engagement and understanding. Zero Carbon Academy’s goals closely align with this approach and I’m excited to have the opportunity to research and communicate a variety of topics relating to our environment and sustainability”.

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