How NYC can take a bite out of climate change

Little girl eating a veggie burger
Little girl eating a veggie burger
Nina Firsova/Shutterstock
A little girl takes a big bite out of a vegan sweet potato burger.

How NYC can take a bite out of climate change

Two proposals to help minimize meat’s carbon footprint.
December 3, 2018

The world’s climate is in serious trouble, and we’re running out of time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before global warming becomes disastrous. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released a report outlining the drastic changes that need to be made in order to limit sea level rise, protect food production and save lives, including the need to reduce our collective consumption of meat products by at least 30 percent.

Agriculture is responsible for an astounding one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions and livestock production – despite only providing 18 percent of the world’s calories – accounts for about half of that. Due to the massive amount of feed required to raise 9 billion farm animals annually in the United States alone as well as the high levels of methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide generated by animal manure, meat and dairy production generally emits significantly higher emissions than plant-based alternatives.

In fact, cattle and other livestock harm the climate more than the combined tailpipe emissions from every plane, train, car, bus, and boat in the world.

To combat climate change, cities need to do more than just mandate cleaner fuels in buildings, and support infrastructure for cleaner forms of transportation like mass transit, biking and walking. Since cities are centers of consumption, government must also look at the foods it purchases for schools, prisons and hospitals as another way to address climate change. If New York City public schools swapped out a beef burger for a plant-based protein, such as lentils, once a month to feed our youngsters, the city would emit significantly less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This approach has been proven through implementation elsewhere. By reducing meat and dairy purchases by 30 percent over a period of two years, schools in California’s Oakland Unified School District reduced their carbon footprint by 14 percent and saved $42,000 annually, since meat and dairy are more expensive than most plant-based foods. These simple cost-saving actions demonstrate how small steps can achieve immediate results in mitigating climate change.

While New York City alone cannot completely stop climate change, we can make a major dent in curbing its effects and even reversing the perilous trajectory that we are currently facing. We’ve started that process by setting ambitious climate goals, including a target to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The City Council is even considering two resolutions that would help raise awareness of reducing meat consumption: one to officially recognize Meatless Monday and the other to urge the city’s public schools to ban processed meats from being served, both of which we wholeheartedly support, with the latter being introduced at the request of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

This issue is not only a legislative or political matter, for both of us this is personal. We each had our own journeys to arrive at these decisions: Adams adopted a whole food, plant-based diet after receiving a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis and Brannan became a vegetarian due to his love of animals. We are two men who appreciate the gravity of this issue as it relates to our environment, our ecosystem and the health of humankind.

New York City can and must do more to ensure healthy communities and a sustainable climate for years to come. We ask our fellow local government leaders to support these two resolutions and to seek new and innovative ways to take a bite out of climate change. We ask local businesses, which can often move quicker than government, to follow the lead of companies like WeWork that have banned meat from its company functions as part of its sustainability efforts. And we ask our fellow New Yorkers to join us in giving plant-based foods more space on your dinner table every night. Moving forward, any national debate on climate change and the environment must take into account the importance of curbing the consumption of meat as part of a comprehensive approach to a potential Green New Deal. Locally, we can begin to wrap our hands around this crisis through oversight by the New York City Council Committee on Contracts as a way to identify how the city is subsidizing climate change through meat procurement. With our combined efforts, we can help lead the world in reducing meat consumption and in mitigating the effects of climate change.

Eric Adams
is the borough president of Brooklyn.
Justin Brannan
represents the 43rd Council District in Brooklyn and is a Lindsay Fellow at the City University of New York.
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