Trying to reduce your carbon footprint? Don't fall for these myths

Since Earth Day's founding nearly 50 years ago, April 22 has been an occasion for people to reflect on how they can treat the environment better. In recent years, with scientists around the world issuing increasingly urgent warnings about the scale of climate change and the shrinking window of time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the focus has been on reducing our climate footprint.

But when it comes to cutting down on carbon emissions, scientists say, many consumers are focusing on the wrong thing. Popular clean-living guides often focus on small changes while glancing by substantive choices that make a real dent in emissions. If carbon were money, these guides obsess on saving $400 a year by drinking fewer lattes instead of slashing your rent in half by getting roommates. Conversely, some things we love that may be good for the Earth aren't necessarily helpful to your carbon footprint.

With that in mind, here are some popular myths coupled with their climate-friendly alternatives.

  • Myth: Eat locally raised beef. Scientists say: Eat plants — from anywhere.

There are plenty of good reasons to eat locally produced food, but climate change isn't one of them. 

Most of the carbon emissions created by food are created when it's grown and processed. Getting food from the farm to the store accounts for only about 4 percent of its overall carbon footprint, said John Rogers, senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. You can have much more impact changing the types of things you eat than worrying about how far they travel. (There are exceptions to this — any food that was shipped via plane, like Peruvian asparagus in December, is probably a bad choice from the climate perspective.)

"If you're going to make one change in your diet to address the climate implications, the most effective choice for the average American is to eat less meat, especially beef," said Rogers. If a family of four were to cut its beef consumption in half, it would be the carbon equivalent of not driving for six months. 

Beef is the most carbon-intensive food because of the sheer amount of plant food needed to raise a cow to eating age. And while they're growing, those cows create lots of methane — a greenhouse gas with four times the earth-warming gas than carbon dioxide. Other carbon-heavy foods are pigs, sheep and dairy products. 

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