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Food

Plant-Rich Diet

Vertumnus by the painter Guiseppe Arcimboldo, created 1590-91, symbolizing the Roman god of metamorphoses.

Shifting to a diet rich in plants is a demand-side solution to global warming that runs counter to the meat-centric Western diet on the rise globally. That diet comes with a steep climate price tag: one-fifth of global emissions. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Plant-rich diets reduce emissions and also tend to be healthier, leading to lower rates of chronic disease. According to a 2016 study, business-as-usual emissions could be reduced by as much as 70 percent through adopting a vegan diet and 63 percent for a vegetarian diet, which includes cheese, milk, and eggs. $1 trillion in annual health-care costs and lost productivity would be saved.

Bringing about dietary change is not simple because eating is profoundly personal and cultural, but promising strategies abound. Plant-based options must be available, visible, and enticing, including high-quality meat substitutes. Also critical: ending price-distorting government subsidies, such as those benefiting the U.S. livestock industry, so that the prices of animal protein more accurately reflect their true cost.

As Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has said, making the transition to a plant-based diet may be the most effective way an individual can stop climate change.

Technical summaries for each solution will be available May 1, 2017.

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