Switching from eating 'land-hungry' meat and dairy produce to foodstuffs like beans, lentils and nuts could remove 16 year's worth of CO2 emissions by 2050, expert said.
Researchers from the US calculated that broad uptake of such plant-based protein alternatives could free up land to support more ecosystems that absorb carbon.
At present, around 83 per cent of Earth's agricultural land is given over to meat and dairy -based production — much of which only produce low yields.
Reducing this figure, the team said, is a better way to combat climate change than waiting for 'unproven' large-scale technologies like atmospheric CO2 extractors.
Switching from eating 'land-hungry' meat and dairy produce to foodstuffs like beans, lentils and nuts, pictured, could remove 16 year's worth of CO2 emissions by 2050, expert said
'The greatest potential for forest regrowth, and the climate benefits it entails, exists in high- and upper-middle income countries,' said paper author and environmental scientist Matthew Hayek of the New York University,
These, he added, are 'places where scaling back on land-hungry meat and dairy would have relatively minor impacts on food security.'
In their study, Professor Hayek and colleagues mapped out the areas of the globe where land use for animal-sourced food production has squeezed out native vegetation, such as forests.
This allowed the team to determine where a shift in our diets to more plant-based foodstuffs could allow natural ecosystems to be restored — helping to offset global carbon dioxide emissions in the process.
'We only mapped areas where seeds could disperse naturally, growing and multiplying into dense, biodiverse forests and other ecosystems that work to remove carbon dioxide for us,' Professor Hayek said.
'Our results revealed over 7 million square kilometres where forests would be wet enough to regrow and thrive naturally, collectively an area the size of Russia.'
The team concluded that — if the demand for land for meat production could be drastically lowered — vegetation regrowth in these locations could help to sequester around 9–16 year's worth of fossil fuel emissions by the middle of century.
This would effectively double the planet's so-called 'carbon budget' — the amount of fossil fuels emissions we can afford to release before we reach the threshold temperature rise of 2.7°F (1.5°C) above pre-industrial levels.
Exceeding this limit is expected to result in a significant rise in the number of severe impacts from climate change — including droughts and sea level rise.
'We can think of shifting our eating habits toward land-friendly diets as a supplement to shifting energy, rather than a substitute,' Professor Hayek said.
'Restoring native forests could buy some much-needed time for countries to transition their energy grids to