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The recently released United Nations report, "Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability" might alter your perception this Earth Day. It confirms that climate change is having an impact on every continent, affecting agriculture, human health, ecosystems, water supplies and even some people's livelihoods, but it also indicates that we can still turn the tide if we take significant steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
Using energy-efficient light bulbs and reusable tote bags or even driving a hybrid car isn't enough. The best way to reduce greenhouse gasses is by eating vegan foods rather than animal-based ones.
Scientists with Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden recently calculated ways to combat climate change and concluded that we won't win the battle by cutting greenhouse-gas emissions from energy use and transportation. Lead scientist Dr. Fredrik Hedenus says that "reducing meat and dairy consumption is key" to reducing greenhouse gasses.
Research shows that cattle are the biggest source of greenhouse gasses, accounting for more than three-quarters of all emissions from the global livestock sector. A 2013 study by scientists at Harvard University and seven other institutions found that the United States is emitting 50 percent more methane - a potent greenhouse gas that's at least 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere - than the Environmental Protection Agency had previously estimated and that much of the "excess" methane is coming from cows in the south-central region of the country.
The Swedish scientists predict that by 2050, beef and lamb production will account for half of all agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions, but only 3 percent of human caloric intake. Cheese and other dairy products are expected to cause about 25 percent of agricultural climate pollution in the next 40 years.
Fortunately, it's easy to find great-tasting mock meats, vegan cheeses and other environmentally friendly options at mainstream grocery stores and restaurants. Since last Earth Day, several national restaurant chains have added vegan options to their menus, so even when you're on the go, you can enjoy delicious dairy-free frozen yogurt, tasty tofu-based dishes, faux-chicken sandwiches, veggie burgers and other plant-based foods. And, of course, most ethnic restaurants offer a variety of vegan dishes, including vegetable curries and stir-fries, falafel, savory noodle dishes and more.
Many communities are encouraging people to eat meat-free meals as well. Since Earth Day 2013, several more cities and counties, including Montgomery County, Md.; Oakland, Calif.; Pensacola, Fla.; and Vancouver, Canada, have joined the ever-growing list of localities that officially endorse Meatless Mondays. Politicians have urged restaurants, schools, grocery stores, businesses and other institutions in these areas to offer more plant-based foods.
Taste-testers in London even tried the world's first laboratory-grown hamburger, which was created by Dutch scientist Mark Post and funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. When in vitro meat is commercially available, it will spare billions of animals and also conserve vast amounts of land and water, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 96 percent and require up to 60 percent less energy than conventional meat, according to researchers.
In the meantime, everyone can help save the environment - and animals - by forgoing meat and other animal-based foods. We've made a lot of progress since the first Earth Day, but there's still a lot left to be done. Humans, as the U.N. notes, are responsible for climate change. And we're also responsible for fixing it.
We can start by eating vegan.
Heather Moore is a senior writer for the PETA Foundation.