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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.

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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.

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Authors and Affiliations



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 4, 21–24 (2021).

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