Changing diets to change the climate – are you willing?

Posted in: Climate Action Survey 2022

University staff and students are open to changing their food habits to reduce the impact their choices have on climate change.

Food production is responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, which shows the huge impact that our diets can have on climate change. The environmental impact of different foods varies hugely, with animal-based diets producing roughly twice the emissions of plant-based ones. Beef and lamb – two types of ruminant meat – have been found to have the most damaging effect on the environment (see the end of this post for an explanation on why this is the case).

Our 2021 Climate Action Survey asked our community their opinions on both diet behaviour and diet policy on campus, with some interesting results.

Key diet behaviour findings:

  • 77% eat ruminant meat once a week, with 22% consuming it 2-4 times per week
  • 46% eat white meat once weekly, with 46% 2-4 times per week
  • 71% eat fish once weekly, with 27% 2-4 times per week

Making better food choices for the planet

We are not the only organisation or University to be having a conversation about implementing a sustainable food commitment on campus. A number of other universities or their SUs have taken action to address carbon emissions through the reduction in ruminant meat available, including the University of Cambridge Catering Service who have removed ruminant meat from their menus1 and Goldsmiths, who have banned the sale of all beef on campus. Since making this change, the University of Cambridge’s Catering Services team has seen a 33% reduction in carbon emissions, showing that even this one change can have a hugely positive impact on the environment.

Approach to food provision on campus: How does it need to change to help the climate?

Offering and opting for sustainable food can help the University to reduce our carbon emissions and reach our ambitious climate targets.

The Climate Action Survey 2021 results show that our community is already open to changing its diet habits – with more respondents open than not to a 50% plant-based diet. The results also found that:

  • Over 94% of our community thinks change is required in our approach to food provision on campus
  • 74% of students and 71% of staff believe ruminant meat should be replaced on campus
  • 50% of staff and 42% of students believe meat proportions should be reduced

While fewer respondents wanted to see a completely meat-free campus (less than 6%), these results show that there is an ‘appetite’ 😊 to make on-site dietary changes in order to help the environment. So, what are we doing?

ahs have been working to reduce our environmental impact for over a decade. In line with many environmental initiatives these efforts to date have been primarily focused on issues of waste, single use plastic and fair trade.

So far, we’ve avoided over 60,000 disposable cups, significantly reduced food waste through for example selling surplus food at discount, and facilitated the re-use of 14.75 tonnes of cutlery, food, crockery, glassware and plastics through “Leave no Trace” since 2018.

Recently the University has been working on developing a Sustainable Food Commitment which aims to make it easy for our community to make choices which reduce the emissions associated to their food purchases on campus. Keep an eye out for the launch of this commitment later this month.

Fighting climate change with a diet change

The food system is a major contributor to climate change and, without significant shifts in diet, reaching global climate targets is unlikely. But it’s definitely not a lost cause. Both individually and as a community, we can make a difference in lowering our carbon emissions through our dietary choices. Eating less meat and dairy doesn’t have to be all or nothing; start small. Shifting to a more plant-based diet is better than making no change at all. In fact, Earth Day encourages consumers to go plant-based just one day a week.

By making simple changes such as eating fewer animal products, eating more fresh produce, and decreasing your food waste, you can cut your personal greenhouse gas emissions significantly. VegSoc estimates that eating a vegetarian diet for a year could save the same emissions as a family taking a small car off the road for 6 months, whilst even a modest shift to eat one less burger a week would be the equivalent of taking your car off the road for 320 miles. Of course, there are many health benefits associated with plant-based diets as well.

So next time you’re queuing for lunch, why not opt for a more climate-friendly meal?

How are ruminants a contributor to climate change?


Ruminants (such as cows, sheep, and goats) produce methane as a side-product of their digestive process, and it is released into the atmosphere through their burps and manure.


Although methane breaks down relatively quickly in the atmosphere, it is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, with the UN estimating that it is 34 times more damaging to the environment over a century than CO2.


In addition, large areas of land are needed to grow enough food for cows, unfortunately this is a significant contribution to deforestation globally.


Globally the UN estimates that livestock emissions make up more than 14% of all man-made greenhouse gases.


Clearly the approach taken to farming cattle and sheep has an impact on the extent of their environmental impact and the emissions they produce; whether the animal grazes on grass or is fed with feedstock, and in turn how that feedstock has been produced (the use of nitrogenous fertilizers in growing feed, and the emissions associated to its transportation to the farm all contribute to global warming).


Greenhouse gas emissions attributable to UK beef is estimated to be 50% less than the global average, due in part to the reduced intensity of farming and that pasture is not created through deforestation. As well as reducing red meat and dairy, people who want to make their diet more climate-friendly can source any meat they do eat from local farmers with high environmental standards.


Switching from beef and lamb to other meats result, based on global averages, in 85% less greenhouse gas emissions per serving of protein, if the switch is to animal-free proteins this delivers an impressive 95% drop in emissions.


Of course it isn't just an issue of ruminant meat - dairy products such as milk, butter and cheese also have a significant carbon impact for the same reasons.

1across all University Catering Service eateries and hospitality. This does not include college catering provision, as colleges are semi-autonomous in Cambridge’s structure and therefore make independent menu decisions.
Notes about the survey 
  • This survey was conducted in November 2021.
  • This survey was completed by 3985 respondents, representing 39% of University staff and 11% of students.
  • This survey was commissioned by the Climate Action team with methodology devised and results analysed by Dr Paul Haggar, Prof Lorraine Whitmarsh, Kaloyan Mitev and Hannah Lester.
  • The collated survey data can be accessed by members of the University of Bath community here.
  • If you have any questions about the nature of this survey, please contact

Posted in: Climate Action Survey 2022


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