Veganuary 2022: is following a plant-based vegan diet good for the environment?

With Veganuary 2022 kicking off, we look at whether following a vegan diet effectively lowers your carbon footprint

The month of January is not usually viewed fondly given it marks the middle of winter and the comedown from the Christmas holidays.

But it can also be a time of great hope for many people, with some opting to give new diets, hobbies or lifestyles a go.

One diet and lifestyle that has become particularly associated with January in recent years is veganism, via the annual Veganuary movement.

This event has been growing in popularity since it was started in the UK in 2014, and one of the key motivations for taking part is climate change and the environment.

So, just how good for the planet is veganism?

Here’s what you need to know.

Following a vegan diet has become increasingly popular in recent years (image: Shutterstock)

What is Veganuary?

Veganuary is an annual event that takes place throughout the month of January and challenges people to go vegan for a month.

It was started in 2014 by British entrepreneur Matthew Glover and animal rights campaigner Jane Land and is now officially run by the Veganuary charity.

Its ambassadors include Hollywood star Joaquin Phoenix, Beatles legend Paul McCartney and TV wildlife presenter Chris Packham, and it is also supported by leading vegan food brands like Beyond Meat and Cauldron.

The 2021 edition of the event was the largest to date, with 582,000 people from 209 countries and territories officially taking part, and many more people besides giving it a go.

More than half a million people officially took part in Veganuary 2021 (image: Getty Images)

UK retailers and foodservice chains have also become increasingly involved in Veganuary, with most now bringing out new vegan ranges every January to capitalise on its popularity.

During Veganuary 2021, 46% of those who took part listed their primary motivation as being the protection of animals.

A further 22% said they had taken part for health reasons, while another 21% were motivated to take part by climate change and the environment.

Is going vegan good for the environment?

In the UK, the plant-based versus animal-based diet debate is fevered, with vegans and meat producers often at loggerheads on social media.

While there is no definitive answer to the question of whether or not plant-based diets are better for the environment, prominent global scientific studies in recent years have tended to argue they do have a positive impact.

A 2012 study by the University of Cambridge said the average person could reduce their carbon footprint by 3% by significantly reducing their red meat intake.

Meanwhile, a global study published in the journal Science, found meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, despite using 83% of farmland and producing 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

One of its authors, Joseph Poore of the University of Oxford, said: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet earth”.

World Vegan Day was originally set up in 1994 to mark The Vegan Society’s 50th anniversary (image: Getty Images)

And the public appear to be listening too.

Global vegan event Veganuary, which challenges participants to go vegan for the month of January, recorded its largest number of sign-ups in 2021 with 582,000 people giving plant-based diets a go.

In follow-up polling, it found 82% of these participants had significantly reduced their meat consumption in the six months since.

60% of these people said Veganuary had helped them to make more sustainable food choices.

A separate survey of 1,000 people by The Vegan Society found a fifth had cut their meat intake during the Covid-19 pandemic, with 30% saying their decision had been down to environmental concerns.

UK farmers argue they shouldn’t be lumped together with the rest of the world when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions (image: AFP/Getty Images)

For their part, British farmers argue their emissions should not be lumped together with the rest of the world.

This is because a large proportion of global emissions from agriculture are borne out of changing land usage, for example, through deforestation - something which doesn’t tend to happen much in the UK, where farms are relatively static.

It is also because major agricultural emitters in other countries tend to use less environmentally friendly farming systems than UK farmers.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation found total global agricultural emissions amounted to 9.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018.

This statistic dwarfs the UK Government’s figure of 46.3 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions emitted by British agriculture in 2019 - around 10% of the UK’s total emissions.

Farmers also argue they are working to lower their emissions.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) launched a 2040 net-zero emissions target in 2019 - a target that is more ambitious than the UK government’s 2050 target.

Meanwhile, Dairy industry trade body Dairy UK launched its own net-zero roadmap in November 2021; one which is in-line with the UK Government’s 2050 target.

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