Eating within planetary boundaries as a vegetarian

I’ve been tracking the climate impact of the food I buy since the first beta tests we’ve had with Evocco. I find it useful and informative, but the information I get in the app doesn’t always translate into purchasing changes. The two main reasons for this are:


  1. It’s hard to know where I’m trying to get to when I’m reducing my impact. What’s the target?

  2. I’m already a vegetarian, so surely that means I’ve got a gold star by my name?


A recent Evocco update has changed my perspective entirely. The team has been working hard on making the app a more useful tool, and this update sets the user a monthly target of 65kg of CO2 from food to be within planetary boundaries. Planetary boundaries are the safe operating limits for our planet. The 65kg monthly target for food consumption is based on the Paris Climate Agreement 1.5 degrees Celsius target and the 1.5-Degree Lifestyles study from Aalto University. Effectively, the planetary boundary goal each month tells me what level the CO2 from my food needs to be at to be in line with the global climate goals for 2030.


Immediately, this gave my tracking another dimension of meaning and I was keen to give it a try so I could understand where I was really at in terms of the impact of my diet. I uploaded my grocery receipts to the app each week, and here’s a rough idea of the products that would be on it this time of year:


Legumes

  • Chickpeas

  • Kidney beans

  • Lentils

  • Frozen peas


Fruit and veg

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Onions

  • Garlic

  • Carrots

  • Broccoli

  • Butternut squash

  • Spinach

  • Tinned tomatoes

  • Mushrooms

  • Peppers

  • Bananas


Cereals


  • Pasta

  • Fresh pasta

  • Rice

  • Couscous

  • Bread (soda, sourdough or pitta)


Other


  • Tofu

  • Olive oil

  • Cashew nuts

  • Coconut milk

  • Oat milk

  • Pesto

  • Pastries (guilty)

  • Coffee



Give or take a few condiments, this is the gist of it. With these ingredients I’d regularly cook meals like dahl, risotto, chilli, curry or just eat pesto by the spoonful out of the jar.


Put it all into Evocco and it gives me a climate impact from food of about 14 kg per week. Worth noting that this shopping list is entirely plant based, apart from items like pastries or fresh pasta that can include dairy or eggs in the ingredient list (you could say that I’m a bad vegan or an excellent vegetarian, up to you). I also avoid some of the high CO2 plant products, like avocado.


The running CO2 total for the month then is ~56 kg, 9 kg inside the planetary boundaries. There’s a catch, though. This covers all my meals except breakfast on work days. Work day breakfasts are an inglorious act for me. Instead of a refreshing fruit salad or some wholesome muesli, I take a post apocalyptic meal replacement shake called Huel.


This isn’t because I think that chewing is an inefficient use of time or that I’m trying to channel my inner tech bro and recreate the perfect Silicon Valley environment in my bedroom/office. It’s because I had too many bowls of bran flakes in the back of the family car on the way to the school bus stop to be able to look the meal in the eye again, and because I'm not the most organised meal planner. Choosing a plant based lifestyle is a healthy and climate friendly thing to do in the vast majority of cases. It is also more affordable where I live. But it does require a little bit more planning to make sure that I get everything I need nutritionally. Sometimes my wandering millennial mind is simply not up to the organisational task midweek.


I start work days with a Huel shake to give me a good nutritional baseline from the get-go, taking the pressure off whatever I choose to cook throughout the day. Huel is plant based, and each 400 kcal shake is 0.6 kg of CO2 emissions, according to the company’s own analysis. That’s lower impact than a meal that includes meat or dairy, but higher impact than a vegan chilli, say.


So, all in, my monthly CO2 from food looks more like 68 kg of CO2. That’s 3 kg or 4.6% more than the 65kg of CO2 goal for eating within planetary boundaries. This came as a bit of a surprise when I first calculated it with Evocco. I turned veggie in 2016 and assumed that was good enough to guarantee the food I bought was sustainable. When we look at getting back within planetary boundaries though, I’ve still got some work to do.


What am I doing to get back within the boundaries?

There are a few easy wins that could bring me closer to getting back within the boundaries, but the single biggest is better meal planning. Spending a little more time to plan meals around low impact products makes a big difference.


As I’m working up the will power for this, there’s another option that’s helping me get back within the boundaries right away. With Evocco, there’s the option to offset the climate impact of your food shopping by planting native woodland through the app. You either do this when you’ve exceeded planetary boundaries so you can get back within them, or you can offset each receipt as you upload and make your shopping climate neutral. Given the daily reminders nature is sending us of the seriousness of the climate crisis through the medium of extreme weather, I like to offset as I go to reduce the impact of my food shopping as much as possible. Worth noting that while offsetting is a climate solution, it’s not a license to continue business as usual. There is nothing better for tackling climate change than simply reducing emissions.


Hugh

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