Cows’ Heavy Footprint: How Shifting to Plant-Based Alternatives Can Help Reduce Emissions

Climate change is real. The buckets of data available to us show some unsettling trends. Global average temperatures have risen 1.1℃ (2℉) from preindustrial levels. 1 2019 was the second warmest year on record. This could be considered random…except that the seven warmest years on record all occurred in the 2010s. 2

The Global Effects of Climate Change

Global warming might be fine if it meant more beach time for everyone, but it doesn’t. The runaway trend carries uncomfortable realities and risks. These include increase and intensification of severe weather events, challenges to our food supply, and catastrophic damage to ecosystems and biodiversity – both land and sea. 3

Perhaps the greatest single threat related to climate change is rising sea levels from melting polar ice caps. The Arctic is heating-up especially quickly: twice as fast as the rest of the Earth. 4 Here we find the world’s largest island, Greenland, which holds enough water – bound-up in ice – to raise global sea levels seven meters. 5 The more the planet warms, the more melt we are likely to see, putting at risk the up to 1.4 billion people expected to be living in the world’s low-elevation coastal zone by 2060. 6

The Cause of Climate Change

Humans. This one is on us. The developed, industrialized world is responsible for emitting reckless amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This heat-trapping gas is a consequence of burning fossil fuels. In 2018, the global average CO2 concentration was 407. 4 parts per million, the highest level in 800,000 years. 7

Carbon dioxide – tied to industry, transportation, and energy – is the preeminent greenhouse gas in our air, but there are two other significant contributors based in agriculture: methane and nitrous oxide. Both are produced by livestock, with cows the undisputed leader, emitting methane through their…well, bodily functions; and nitrous oxide through manure. Technically, these emissions are natural, except for the fact that the cattle industry has not grown naturally, but by design to meet human demands.

Cows and Climate Change

Animal agriculture is responsible for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 8 This is equal to all transportation on Earth. 9 Picture every jet plane splitting the sky, every interlocked car in a traffic jam, every steamer lumbering across the waters, every chugging train. The animal products we consume have the same impact as all this smog, which is a gigantic "wow."

Two-thirds of livestock sector emissions come from one animal: cows. 8 Currently, there are more cows on Earth than people in China – about 1.5 billion. 10 In Brazil, the world’s #1 beef producer, cattle and human populations are equal! 10 Cows are ruminant animals with a special digestive function called enteric fermentation, the inevitable result of which is methane (CH4) – a greenhouse gas 25x more effective in trapping heat than CO2.

Add to this the problem of manure. The custom of storing this in open pits has accelerated its production of nitrous oxide (N2O), which is 298x more potent than CO2. It also lingers in the atmosphere for 110 years. Between nitrogen-containing synthetic fertilizers and manure, the livestock sector accounts for 53% of the world’s anthropogenic N2O emissions. 9

While farmers have tried different feeding and manure management methods, there is no way to produce a zero-emissions cow. The most effective solution is to have fewer of them. While we may sometimes feel futile faced with sooty power plants and wishy-washy government promises, our dietary choices can in fact change our food system (just look what happened to Dean Foods and Borden). 11

The Impact of Going Plant-Based

We are learning that plant-based foods don’t have to be flimsy nutritional substitutes for animal products. They can do the same work with a fraction of the footprint. A pound of almonds, for instance, represents about 1/22nd the emissions of the same weight in beef. 12 Like beef, almonds are a good protein source, making this a perfectly viable swap – of which there are so many more.

While meat in general is an emissions factory, beef is the worst offender. Tamar Haspel calls it a “carbon Sasquatch.” 13 In 2016, the average American consumed 55.6 pounds of beef. 14 That’s almost 1500 pounds in CO2e emissions! Replacing just half of this with a plant option, such as beans, could cut your personal footprint by over 700 lbs. 11 Some estimates place the figure even higher. 13

You can achieve further impact by replacing some of your dairy consumption with plant milk. In 2017, the average American was consuming 18 gallons of milk per year – 288 glasses worth, or about 460 lbs. of CO2e emissions annually. 15,16 Swapping half of this for dairy alternatives like almond milk could save about 200 lbs. CO2e. 16

So, a moderate estimate has a single person’s annual greenhouse gas reduction at 900 lbs. – just for trading half of your cow product consumption for plant-based alternatives. This equals:

  • 180 daily work commutes (10 miles each way)
  • 18% of average U.S. home’s annual energy use
  • 57 incandescent light bulbs switched to LED
  • 190,000 smartphones charged
  • 1.8 acres of forest absorbing carbon for a year
  • 1,600 pounds of coal burned 17

That’s hardly insignificant for a single person making a moderate change. Imagine multiplying this by 3.3 million – and that’s just 1% of the U.S. population!

Elmhurst is Onboard with True Dairy Alternatives

Elmhurst started Mission Transition because it has lived the transition. As the very last New York City dairy, it endured the public’s declining appetite for cow’s milk. When dairy no longer seemed viable – or, in fact, ethical – it switched to making plant milks representing true nutritional alternatives.

All Elmhurst products can work in place of dairy. Viewed through the lens of climate, a few especially stand out:

  • Milked Oats™. Oats are very low in emissions. Beef produces over 50x more CO2e at an equal weight, while a glass of oat milk carries about 1/3 the footprint of dairy. 12,16 Oats are also a surprisingly credible protein source. Available original, unsweetened, barista, chocolate, and single-serve.
  • Hemp Creamers. Hemp is a carbon negative plant, pulling CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil. One ton of hemp can remove 1.63 tons of CO2 from the air. 18 This makes replacing dairy with hemp creamer an effective, Earth-conscious solution. Available original unsweetened, French vanilla, hazelnut, and golden milk.


So, carpool, buy a hybrid car, install solar panels on your roof, recycle, use LED lightbulbs: It all helps. But while you’re thinking of ways to change, remember the hidden emissions in our food supply. Fortunately, in a demand-driven world, you can use your buyer power to shrink the heavy footprint of animal products. Don’t worry about going fully vegan if it isn’t for you. Were 1% of the United States population (3.3 million people) to replace just half of their beef and dairy milk consumption with plant-based alternatives for a year, we’d do the same climate-forward work as shutting down a coal plant. 17

Are you in?


  1. World Meteorological Organization. WMO Provisional Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019. 2019.
  2. NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. Global Climate Report – Annual 2019. January 2020.
  3. Intergovernmental Pattern on Climate Change. Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5℃. 2018.
  4. Sneed, Annie. "How Is Worldwide Sea Level Rise Driven by Melting Arctic Ice?." Scientific American. June 5, 2017.
  5. Tollefson, Jeff. “Major Report Prompts Warnings That the Arctic Is Unraveling.” Scientific American. April 28, 2017.
  6. Neumann, Barbara et al. “Future Coastal Population Growth and Exposure to Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Flooding – A Global Assessment.” PLoS One 10, no. 6 (2015): doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0118571
  7. Lindsey, Rebecca. “Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide.” NOAA September 19, 2019.
  8. Gerber, P.J. et al. Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock: A Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013.
  9. Colombo, Barrett et al. How Does Agriculture Change Our Climate?. University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment. Accessed October 10, 2019.
  10. FAOSTAT. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed November 22, 2019.
  11. Isidore, Chris. “One of America’s Oldest and Largest Milk Producers Files for Bankruptcy.” CNN. January 6, 2020.
  12. Heller, Martin C. and Gregory A. Keoleian. "Greenhouse Gas Emission Estimates of U.S. Dietary Choices and Food Loss." Journal of Industrial Ecology 19, no. 3 (2014). doi: 10.1111/jiec.12174.
  13. Haspel, Tamar. "Here's how much giving up beef helps – or doesn't help – the planet." Washington Post. July 20, 2017.
  14. Meyer, Zlati. “Beef Is Back on the Grill and Its Sales Are Heating Up, Too.” USA Today. July 5, 2017.
  15. Evstatieva, Monika and Audie Cornish. “Why Are Americans Drinking Less Cow’s Milk? Its Appeal Has Curdled.” NPR. May 16, 2017.
  16. Whiting, Tabitha. “What Milk Should You Buy To Reduce Your Environmental Impact?.” Medium. May 18, 2019.
  17. United Nations Environmental Protection Agency. “Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.”
  18. Hill, Graham. “Hemp, and Lots of It, Could Be One Climate Solution.” HuffPost. December 6, 2017.

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