The carbon opportunity cost of animal-sourced food production on land


Extensive land uses to meet dietary preferences incur a ‘carbon opportunity cost’ given the potential for carbon sequestration through ecosystem restoration. Here we map the magnitude of this opportunity, finding that shifts in global food production to plant-based diets by 2050 could lead to sequestration of 332–547 GtCO2, equivalent to 99–163% of the CO2 emissions budget consistent with a 66% chance of limiting warming to 1.5 °C.

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Fig. 1: Distribution of carbon in potential vegetation in areas of present-day animal feed croplands and pastures combined for each 5 arcmin grid cell.
Fig. 2: Carbon opportunity cost of animal agriculture and atmospheric CO2 emissions grouped by national income tiers.
Fig. 3: Cumulative changes in terrestrial carbon from three dietary scenarios in 2050: BAU, ELC and VGN.

Data availability

Geospatial data for land-use area and carbon opportunity costs are available via the NYU Faculty Data Archive Spatial Data Repository, accessible online at


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We thank S. Davis, W. R. Moomaw, J. S. Gerber and L. L. Sloat for their helpful comments.

Author information




M.N.H. and H.H. developed the core research questions and conceptual approach of this study. M.N.H. and N.D.M. performed geospatial modelling and statistical analysis. M.N.H. developed the low-parameter model representation of literature 2050 BAU projections for the future land-use scenarios. All authors contributed to identifying and conceptually implementing the alternative 2050 dietary scenarios and contributed to the writing, editing and revising of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Matthew N. Hayek.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Tables 1–6, Results and Figs. 1–5.

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Hayek, M.N., Harwatt, H., Ripple, W.J. et al. The carbon opportunity cost of animal-sourced food production on land. Nat Sustain (2020).

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