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Climate action: 10 steps to cut down on meat and dairy

Reducing meat and dairy consumption is the most significant action consumers can take when it comes to climate breakdown. 

Here, we talk about how to cut down.

Meat and dairy accounts for almost 15% of our total global emissions. Reducing the amount we eat is therefore going to be crucial to curbing climate breakdown. In fact, in 2021, Ethical Consumer’s Climate Gap report named it as one of 10 key consumer actions we must take if we’re to achieve the UK’s national climate targets.

In this article, we give ten tips to cut down on meat and dairy, and discuss why it’s so important.

10 tips to cutting down on meat and dairy

For some, cutting down on meat and dairy will seem like a fun challenge: a way to learn new recipes, find new places to eat or feel assured you’re taking climate action. For others, it may be more daunting.

Luckily, there is a wealth of resources and support out there to help you learn about nutrition, track your progress or feel part of a wider movement.

1. Set yourself a realistic goal

Your food goal can be as big or as small as you like. For example, you could try not to eat meat for lunch, or you could limit yourself to just one meat-eating day a week or start with one vegetarian day a week.

People across the UK will have to cut their meat and dairy consumption by 20% before 2030 if we’re to meet national carbon reduction targets. Why not think about what 20% less meat and dairy in your life would look like and set this as your goal?

2. Build in gradual changes

You don’t have to give up everything all at once if it isn’t right for you. Swap the ham out of your sandwich, use vegetarian mince instead of meat mince, substitute oat milk for dairy milk.

Our shopping guides provide more details on some of the main types of food where you can make swaps for plant-based alternatives.

3. Trial being vegetarian or vegan for one month

Knowing there is an end in sight may make you more motivated. It’s a great trial to understand what you can do. And might be a step towards being vegetarian or vegan full time!

4. Find meat and dairy-free alternatives

Ethical Consumer’s shopping guides to meat-free sausages and burgers, vegan and non-dairy milks, butter & spreads, and other food can help you find good vegetarian and vegan alternatives.

If you like going out for food, looking up new veggie and vegan spots might make it more fun. The Happy Cow app helps you to find vegan and vegetarian food when you are out and about. It is also international so can be used wherever you are in the world.

5. Start with the biggest emitters

Exactly how bad meat is for the climate depends on what it is, how it is produced, and also how you divide up responsibility for things like deforestation. You may therefore want to think about what kind of meat you’re going to cut out or reduce.

Cutting lamb and beef out of your diet will have the biggest impact in terms of your carbon emissions.

The inforgraphic compares emissions and land use for beef, lamb, pigs and chickens, with cheese, tofu and quorn. The figures are in the text on the web page,
(C) Infographic by Moonloft for ECRA

6. Track your impact

Use Meat Free Monday’s Impact Calculator to see your positive effect.

7. Learn new recipes

Meat Free Mondays offers recipes, background information and even a carbon calculator to work out the impact from your change on its website.

Vegetarian Society has recipes, information about nutrition, and advice on vegetarian food for pets on its website.

Veganuary provides nutrition tips and recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner on its website.

Keep it simple and be realistic about your cooking. If you don’t cook much, don’t feel that you have to learn the most complicated vegetarian or vegan recipes.

8. Understand the nutrition

Some people have health worries about going vegetarian or vegan. Take time to understand what foods you need. Vegetarian Society has information about nutrition on its website, as does Veganuary.

four boxes of vegetarian and vegan food including rice, falafel and vegetables

9. Get support

Doing something with someone else can help motivate you and keep you going. This might be getting a friend, family member or housemate to cut down with you and share the journey.

It could be getting support online. Optimise has a nine-week online programme to support you in reducing your meat intake. It supports you to create an action plan, celebrate your achievements and evaluate what is hard.

10. Join a bigger movement

Doing Meat Free Mondays or Veganuary can make you feel part of a bigger change.

Get inspired: Hear how others took action

Marta

A friend talked me into trying a dairy and meat-free diet for a month. Four years later and I still eat a dairy and meat-free diet!

After I decided to limit animal-based foods, I began seeing more vegan content on social media and meeting other people with a similar diet. It gets easier to find recipes or restaurants with good vegan options. It's also allowed me to become even more creative in the kitchen.

I am lactose intolerant, so once I stopped eating dairy, I immediately stopped feeling bloated and heavy. I’ve begun appreciating my body more as I feel healthier and healthier.

I try not to fall into the processed-food vegan trap, because it requires more energy and water to produce and the ingredients aren't as healthy.  I try to make homemade meals which I then freeze for when I'm especially busy studying or working.  For health reasons, I consume fish, although not as often as I used to. London Farmers’ Markets website tells me about fishmongers who can actually say where the fish originates from.

I love that now people in my household, my boyfriend and my two close friends, cook the things I can eat, and we all have dinner together. So less meat, less dairy or eggs everyone! I wouldn’t have asked them to make this change, but it happened so organically and naturally.

It’s nice to think I’ve had a positive impact on the people I love and respect.

Esther

I have always been interested and inspired by food. My dad owned his own restaurant, serving south Indian (Keralian) food, which I used to visit often and enjoy. But I only really started to think critically about food in the last 6 years: where it came from, how it's made, who was behind it. It seemed too easy to believe that it just appeared there on the supermarket shelf!

Once I knew what I stood for, changing my habits around my food choices actually came easily to me. I cut meat, dairy, honey and all traces of animals out of my food after learning about the awful practices behind it.

I was driven to learn by my own curiosity, but the support and understanding I got from friends and family helped me to make the real changes in my life. They saw that I, like them, just wanted to live in a way aligned with my values. Once I met and became close friends with other food-conscious people, I felt that eating in line with my values was the only way I knew how to live. I had a like minded community around me helping me to learn.

The times where I have really eaten to my standards have felt transformative; I felt happier, healthier and cleaner. Throughout this whole journey I have never stopped enjoying and loving food.

Why is cutting down on meat and dairy important?

Animal farming is responsible for over 50% of greenhouse gas emissions from our food. Yet it only provides 37% of our protein and 18% of our calories.

The emissions associated with animals relate to lots of different parts of their lives.

  • Carbon is emitted in the production of animal feed.
  • Cows and sheep burp methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, while trying to digest grass.
  • Rainforest is cleared to make space for ranching or feed production.
  • Animals also require large amounts of land for grazing. This means that the space (usually) is not being used for forest, wetland or other climate-friendly ecosystems.

All this means that eating meat and dairy is a very inefficient way to get energy. The most straight-forward way to understand this is by thinking about a cow being fed. If a cow eats a meal of soya, they won’t save up all the energy for our steak or milk: they’ll use some of it up by walking around, mooing or just generally being alive. If we’d eaten that soya directly, we’d have received much more energy compared to the emissions from growing it. Although obviously much more complex than this, it helps explain why a kilo of beef has 12 times more carbon emissions than a kilo of tofu (which is made of soya).

By far the biggest way that consumers can reduce the greenhouse gas impacts of their food is by reducing their consumption of products from cows, sheep and goats (known as ruminant animals).

UK diet Tonnes CO2e per year
High meat eaters 2.6
Medium meat eaters 2
Low meat eaters 1.7
Vegetarians 1.39
Vegans 1

These figures are a low estimate of the emissions from meat. They do not account for all the things we could do with land if we were not using it for meat, like capturing carbon.

Read our feature on the climate impacts of meat, vegetarian and vegan diets >

In fact, in order to meet the UK’s national targets on climate change, we must reduce meat and dairy by 20%. This means that either everyone must cut their consumption by 20%, or a significant proportion must cut their consumption significantly more to account for the fact that others may not take action. When deciding on your own climate action, therefore, you may want to go beyond 20% to drive us towards the change needed as a whole.

Climate Gap report

In October 2021, Ethical Consumer published a report looking at consumer action on climate change. It looked at ten key actions consumers must take for the UK to reach its emissions reductions goals, and how far we are from meeting them.

It found that without further action, we would miss all ten key consumer targets. In fact, it found that when it came to emissions from our food, we were actually moving backwards: producing more CO2 each year.

Our Climate Gap report used figures from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – the group that advises UK governments on decarbonisation. It says that as well as cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20% before 2030, a further 15% is needed by 2050 across the UK as a whole.

While we have used the CCC’s figures, they have been criticised for not cutting fast enough. Going beyond a 20% reduction in your meat and dairy consumption is therefore an important step you can take in cutting emissions overall.