How to carbon offset: the environmental impact of your meat and dairy consumption
It seems beef is getting a bad rap when it comes to the environment. I like beef. And meat in general. And dairy. So I thought I’d figure out how to offset this impact. This article is not about the morals of a carnivorous diet. It’s about offsetting whatever your meat and dairy diet levels might be.
Let’s start with cow research.
The big deal with cows is that they produce a lot of methane from burping, flatulence and decomposition of excrement and post-slaughter waste. Methane is worse than CO2, but we use CO2 as our climate benchmark currency so we’ll convert all nasties into CO2 so we’re not comparing apples with steaks. And since beef is widely regarded as the worst environmental disasterfier, once we work out how evil it is and offset it, then if we use the same offset calculation for all other meats they’d be more than covered and we’re doing extra good too. Everybody’s happy. Unless you’re a meat.
So… I want to know how much methane a cow produces in its lifetime so I can have a steak. Then I want to offset the environmental damage that production of that steak caused.
One minute of research
Here are the first two pieces of research: beef cow lifespan and beef yield per cow.
A cow raised solely for beef lives 18-24 months before being slaughtered. A whole cow yields around 440 pounds of beef (200kg). Of that, 200 pounds (91kg) is ground beef, and 220 pounds (100kg) are cuts like steaks, roasts, ribs, brisket, tenderloin, etc.
Here’s some research on methane production per cow. I have an issue with this next piece of research as the author makes typos, unless “overage” is a word outside the cricket world and is used in flatulent cow circles.
Regardless, other research seems to mainly concur… on overage.
Cows produce methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide (CO2). A cow releasing 100 kg of methane per year is equivalent to about 2300 kg CO2 per year. A Danish study came up with a 4000 kg CO2 equivalent per cow per year.
So we have a range produced per cow between 2300kg to 4000kg of CO2 equivalent levels of methane, and a range of lifespan of between 18-24 months. Giving us a wide range CO2 equivalent output per cow.
Lowest: 2300kg of CO2 per year for a cow living 18 months = 3450 kg of CO2 per cow
Highest: 4000kg of CO2 per year for a cow living 24 months = 8000 kg of CO2 per cow
So the range is quite significant from 3450 kg of CO2 to 8000 kg of CO2. I’m going to work with 2400 kg of CO2 per year per cow as the Danish study was a bit of an outlier, and then I’ll assume the cow lives 20 months.
2400kg of CO2 equivalent per year for a cow living 20 months = 4000 kg of CO2 per cow per lifetime.
We need to plant 18 trees to offset 1 tonne of CO2. But my recommendations work on a triple offset model since changing the world means doing more than being climate neutral. We need to be climate positive to offset the negative from indifference or ignorance. So I work on a triple offset model where we offset three times more than we need to, so we’re offsetting those who are doing nothing or can’t do anything. So we’d need to plant 54 trees to triple offset 1 tonne of CO2.
That means offsetting an entire cow that produces (the equivalent of) 4 tonnes of CO2 would require 216 trees to be planted. Since the cow yields 200kg of retail meat, that’s close enough to one tree per kg (triple offset).
Since cows are universally considered the worst contributor to climate damage of all the meats, a reasonable offset is to then plant one tree per kg of any meat purchased anywhere.
One option then is to plant a tree for every kilogram of steak we buy at home or eating out. Planting a tree costs US$0.40 on the B1G1.com platform.
But to save the calculation, you could make it easier, based on meat-eating preferences. Let’s easify it.
Option 1: Score your household meatiness
We’re going to figure out the diet-meatiness of every person in your household. Simple. Think about the diet of each person in your household and score them in terms of their diet of meat (beef, pork, lamb, chicken) in order to add up their scores to create a single figure for your household:
5 – Meatlover – meat on most meals and big meat dinners
3 – recovering meatlover
2 – smaller portions of meat per meal
1 – at least 2 all-veg meals per week
1 – mainly vegetarian but very small portions of meat per meal
0 – no meat in anything at all
So in my family, I score a 5, Lydia scores a 2 and Zoe is a 2 as well, but at 3 years old her quantity of consumption is so small, I’m giving her a score of 1. We total 8 as a family. And that’s how many trees we need to plant each week to triple offset the impact of rearing the meat we consume in our diet. Easy.
If I want that figure monthly I multiply by 4.333 as there are that many weeks in the average month. Our total is 34.666. So we’d plant 35 trees a month to triple offset our dietary choices when it comes to meat. At US$0.40 a tree, that’s US$14 a month to triple offset eating meat.
Option 2: one tree per meat meal.
This option was born from David Keith’s suggestion that we probably need to offset more because of the supply-chain of getting the meat to us in the first place. David said (in the first comment below, so I added this option after my reply to him):
“Think about the destruction of forests to create grazing pastures, the manufacture of fertilisers to keep the grass pasture sustainable to beef or (more intensive milk production). The transport by trucks of the cattle or milk to the processing factories. The power and resources to run the factories. The packaging used to package the products. The transport to get the products from the factories to the shops. The refrigeration used to keep it all fresh. I think I’ll reconsider to increase the amount of trees ten fold.”David Keith, super-smart guy who knows his numbers, Ballina, NSW, Australia
As David is a super-smart business manager with multiple-award winning accounting firm Collins Hume, I was prompted to consider his numbers and develop a second easification option. Here it is:
Every time you eat a meal with meat in it, plant a tree. Simple as that.
Two things will happen.
One, you’ll plant a tree. Use the B1G1 app Impact Now and do it when you order. Easy. Cost: US$0.40-0.75 a tree. Multiplied by your household members eating. Or the people at the business meeting who will ask what you’re doing and then you can impact change that way too.
Or Two, you’ll opt for an amazing salad and reduce the demand the drives the destruction. Again, I love my steaks, but I could be encouraged to take a salad once in a while. This might be a great way to do that.
Thanks, David, great idea. Connect with David here on LinkedIn.
Next up: dairy.
Offsetting your Dairy
Dairy is another aspect to consider because dairy cows live for 5 years producing milk for 3 years before being turned into beef, their total methane emissions are significantly more than a reared-only-for-beef cow.
Dairy cows produce about 21,000 lbs (9525kg) of milk per year which is 9810 litres. For three years of milking, that’s 29430 litres for the cow’s lifetime.
At 2400kg of CO2 equivalent per year (the same assumption we used earlier), each dairy cow would produce methane equivalent to 12,000kg of CO2 in their 5-year lifetime.
So for every 2.45 litres of milk produced, 1 kg of CO2 goes into the atmosphere.
Since we plant 54 trees per tonne of CO2, we’d plant one tree per 18.52 kg of CO2. That means we’d plant 1 tree for every 45.37 litres of milk or other dairy we consume.
Here are some stats that might be irrelevant: Australians consume 105 litres of dairy per person per year. In the UK it’s 102 litres. In the US it’s 65 litres. In Singapore it seems to be 10 litres.
Wild assumption time:
This next assumption and course of thinking holds somewhat less global scientific merit that evaluating your dairy consumption yourself. But here goes…
I seem to have 4 litres of milk CONTAINERS and another 1.5 kg of other dairy products in my fridge at any one time. As I’m Australian, the stats would suggest I consume 105 litres a year, that’s 2 litres per week. I reckon I’m closer to 3 litres. My wife Lydia is Singaporean and thinks she drinks 500ml per week. Zoe drinks 600ml of milk per day 4.2 litres per week, but she’s three and at least 80% of that is from milk powder. Still, that’s a total of 7.7 litres a week.
My wild assumption is that whatever quantity of milk containers you have in your fridge right now, double it to get you weekly purchase. For us, the 4 litres would mean that as a family we might purchase 8 litres of dairy a week. That’s about 35 litres a month.
If I plant one tree per month, my family’s environmental impact due to dairy production is more than covered with a triple offset.
Triple offset (and then some) your dairy consumption by planting one tree per month for every three people in your family. Round up if you need to. So for the three of us, we’d contribute 1 tree a month.
Or bigify if like David Keith suggested in the meat section and plant a tree any time you buy dairy. That might be at least a couple of times a week. But at $0.40 a tree, that’s probably affordable.
Or calculate it exactly yourself. I’m doing the 1 tree per month offset until I calculate everything in the next couple of posts.
Combined: so for all meat and dairy, we’ve triple offset our contribution to environmental damage by planting at least 36 trees a month. Cost: US$14.40 per month. This can be set up as an automated-giving to the tree planting project on B1G1.com, or use the Impact Now app to plant a tree any time you eat a meat meal or buy milk.
Or do it yourself and go out plant trees somewhere where they’ll be safe to grow for at least a decade.
So… meat and dairy consumption …. offset.
And if you have a degree of overage of my offsetting articles, I’m not done yet. Yes we’ve looked at offsetting your flying (my article gets into the meat of that one), and we’ve looked at offsetting your driving (I make a good car-case in that article), and then in this article, it was offsetting your meat and dairy consumption (dairy I say it). And we’ve planted a lot of trees so far. But stay with me… there are two big ones left…. offsetting your electricity and keeping your shopping climate positive.
P.S. the planet loves you for following through… on overage.