Sustainability / Environment

Plant-Based Diets Could Free Up Enough Land for Bioenergy and Carbon Capture

A study by researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands has calculated that if the world transitioned to a more plant-based diet, enough land could be freed up to make Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) a viable option.

Bioenergy (using crops to generate energy) has long been considered a way to address climate change, since crops take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere when they grow. It has been suggested that when the crops are used to produce energy, the resulting carbon dioxide could be permanently stored underground; in this way, the process of generating energy could actually reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

However, bioenergy has been criticized as it requires large areas of land and a lot of water, potentially using resources that are needed for food production. The new study was conducted to see if plant-based diets could mitigate this problem.

The results show that replacing just 50% of animal products with plant-based foods by 2050 could free up enough land to generate as much energy as currently provided by coal-fired power stations. Furthermore, the amount of carbon removed from the air using BECCS would be almost as great as the amount currently generated by coal-fired power plants.

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“Huge opportunity”

Studies consistently indicate that plant-based diets have the potential to save huge areas of land. A GFI report last year found that meat alternatives could reduce land and water use by over 80%, and as much as 99% in the case of beef alternatives. A study published in October calculated that removing animals from the food system could offset total greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 68%.

Other research has indicated that replacing animal foods with plant-based alternatives could virtually halt deforestation, while a UN report published in December said meat alternatives have “strong potential for reduced environmental impacts”.

“We want to show countries that [BECSS combined with plant-based diets] is a huge opportunity,” said Leiden University researcher Oscar Rueda. “This way, an enormous potential of energy is available. At the same time, you can stimulate the economy and improve the health of the population. BECCS is facing key sustainability challenges, but we show that by switching to a more sustainable diet, we can overcome the biggest problems by leveraging the benefits of BECCS more safely.

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