Carbon neutral and CO2 emissions, etc

MODERATOR NOTE: This post was split from another thread.

I’ve picked up a high-level volunteer side gig working as hard as I can on climate change, teaching people in rich countries, primarily this one, how to live reasonably without throwing 3-5x the carbon into the air that everyone else does. Green sherpa, in other words.

One gallon of gas puts 20 lbs of carbon dioxide into the sky. But it doesn’t have to happen that way, and the problem can be solved without despoiling the planet in other ways, like scraping an unstable, toxic metal out of the ground for more batteries.

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I can’t figure out what you are talking about here… as far as I know, the “unstable” metals are those used in nuclear reactions. Metals used in batteries are completely or almost completely composed of stable isotopes.

Well…radioisotopes are unstable in the sense that they decay, but lots of other elements are unstable in the sense of highly reactive. In this case, lithium. It’s hell to work with, bad to extract and refine, nearly as bad to dispose of or attempt to recycle. There’s been a lot of work done in trying to get away from lithium in rechargeable batteries, but so far there’s not much that’s viable with reasonable charge density. I recall seeing something about cobalt, but I don’t think you’d want masses of that in everyday life, either, pretty toxic stuff.

I was talking with a senior CCS (carbon capture and storage) engineer not long ago; his politics and mine differ decidedly, but part of his line for going for fossil/CCS rather than renewable non-fossil energy sources was about the environmental costs of lithium, and I agree with him there. (I sense this veering wildly OT, so if you want to continue this, feel free in DMs.)

Bennty - would you ever consider working in a non-profit that furthered your values in retirement (vs. straight volunteering)?

A collegue of mine did this - they day he retired he moved into a non-profit leadership role that used all his prior experience (but with a focus on the aspect he liked). I was so impressed - he’d clearly been setting this up for a while!!

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Well – I think it would really depend. If I was set for money, then no, I wouldn’t accept pay, and I’d suggest that the paid job go to someone younger, or to someone who’d non-income-maximized through service or circumstance (caregiving or illness, for instance) and was a good candidate who needed the job. I would also, frankly, be inclined to mentor younger people into leadership rather than taking the leadership role myself. We’ve seen decades’ worth of trouble from people who weren’t willing to hand over the reins till the last gasp, and the result was demoralization and a long generational gap in experienced leadership. That’s starting to right itself now, but at the cost of having a lot of inexperienced people moving straight into those roles.

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During the pandemic, I’ve added a new area of work to my advisory practices. Venture-backed startups that need advice. They are more labor-intensive than my big company clients, but are a lot of fun. One would be right up @bennty’s alley. It takes CO2 as an input in reactions to create proteins for human or animal food, biostimulants for plants, other chemicals (oils etc.). So carbon reductive. I’m also working with several others. This is not pro bono but I charge them less and take some equity usually. Some are just cool (insuretech) and some also have a mission (I’m a co-founder of a company that can help move to gender equity in pay). I enjoy helping the young or young-ish founders. This may become a significant part of my shift from corporate work to pro bono as it is somewhere in the middle.


@shawbridge, I can see this being a good stepping stone for many. For me – and for many others – social inequity and climate change are tightly entwined problems, so I’m not likely to do work for vc-backed endeavors. They’ll probably be public or foundation gigs that don’t put profit at the top of the priority list – I think that’s how we got into this fix and that it’s unlikely the same angle of attack will get us out.

The problem with turning CO2 into other things is that it’s enormously energy-intensive; it comes with the double bonds and the shape of the molecule. The solutions to that problem so far include using renewable energy to drive those processes (sooner rather than later that leads us back to lithium and other environmentally problematic fixes on a large scale) and expensive solvents and catalysts to tickle CO2 into a more susceptible mood (which again are often toxic and extremely expensive to produce and handle, if not underpinned by slave labor, continued poisoning of vulnerable people’s neighborhoods, and habitat destruction elsewhere).

You see this all over profit-driven climate response, because it caters to a desire to retain the same level of consumption we had in the late 20th c. – and more – while reducing GHG emissions, usually through different-resource-intensive STEM invention. I don’t think this is tenable, which is why I’m moving away from STEM climate-tech work that relies on unsustainable (socially, environmentally) novelties; I think in the end reducing consumption through efficiencies and changes in how we live is likely to be where we’ll have no choice but to go, and that it’d be as well to figure out how to do it and acclimate now. Learn to use less, living well and without feeling that it’s deprivation. Some of that’s large-scale work – urban planning, transit infrastructure, efficient process design and implementation, federal standards-setting, etc. – and some is individual- or household-scale.

For instance, here’s the household level: I have a 1600-sqft house with about 1100 sqft of living space, plenty for one or two people, though they’re making it work with four next door. In the last seven months I’ve used six gallons of gasoline, and I live in the semi-rural midwest; my daily walk takes me past 200-acre farms. And no, I don’t have a daily flood of deliveries coming to the door. But I do have a bike, a bus pass, an internet connection, an excellent reel mower, a grocery-anchored shopping center a 10-minute walk away, and a house full of things I already have [looks down, sees shirt bought in 1993, still in fine condition, though more pink now than purple]. The “new” things I buy are generally used, though I’ve sold mundane and luxury items in very similar condition in shops. About 1/3 of my garbage is compost for my garden, 1/3 recycled packaging, 1/3 unrecyclable food scraps or unrecyclables: there’s a small office trash can’s worth of each weekly, and about 2/3 of that is about to get whittled down hard. A small-backyard garden plus local CSA provide most of my food for most of the year; the only additives I put in the garden are occasional iron sulfate pellets to keep down slugs, otherwise the soil is local and the food organic. My current energy bills run about $23/mo; they might get up to $80 in a seriously subzero month, and better attic insulation as soon as there’s a pandemic lull should reduce that a bit further. High efficiency long-life heating equipment that replaced end-of-lifespan equipment, plus low/no-energy heat/water management practices in my home, keep my gas bill at a small fraction of my neighbors’, and while the industrial and energy processes that go into solar panels need serious work, the 4.7 kW array on my roof will likely last 25+ years and makes all the kWh I need for the year, sending the electricity I don’t use immediately back to the grid at peak use times. (Like now.) There are few single-use items in my household; my non-landline phone is 10 years old, my Leica camera, 50 years old, desktop computer, 9 years old, printer, 18 years old, turntable, 40 years old, car 22 years old (my last, I hope), Christmas tree and ornaments 25 years old or more, violin, 100 years old, etc. Most of the things I buy in a week are made by people I have met or know of through friends: food, wine, music, books. And I think I’ve accidentally opened a door to my own past in learning to knit – great winter socks that don’t cost a mint, hooray, but I remember carding wool as a kid, and I think I’m headed back that way; I bought some crafty old nan’s collection of comfortable hardwood needles –

– and here’s the policy level: twice an hour a bus goes past my house, with night and Saturday service, and in a month or so it’ll be an electric bus, fully ADA compliant and with a double bike rack on the front. It’s free or nearly free for most people and the plan is to make it free for all and expand to Sunday service. There are two other routes in easy walking distance. A network of bike trails separate from roads gets me to work in 23 minutes; there are also sidewalks, curb cuts, and safe intersection crossings the whole way should I choose to walk. The route to the shopping center is pleasant and includes neighborhood sidewalks and a wooded trail along a pond; there are mulberries, wild grapes, elderberries, rose hips to collect along the way in their seasons, left alone or gently managed by city foresters. All these things happened with local, state, and federal tax funding, in coordination with regional agencies. I bought the solar panels and high-efficiency rigs with a very low interest loan from my city, federal-block-grant-funded and further subsidized by state and local tax credits, and as part of that process I had my house’s efficiency checked, tax-funded, by Green Americorps. A state law has pushed back on the utilities, barring penalties for installing renewable generation and allowing for cash-out schedules that make use of accumulated spring/summer credits. There are no neighborhood ordinances prohibiting me from line-drying my clothes, and I can have backyard chickens, but all my neighbors would have to sign off on it. Federally-supported state low-income healthcare programs and strong local public schools allow my CSA farmer to keep growing beautiful, not-cheap-but-affordable veg for the whole area (her take-home is lower than her employees’), and to sell on a sliding scale to low-income customers who also need good nutrition.

I’m past wanting to work in policy in glamor offices, but I can serve on local commissions and teach people how to do and advocate for all these things (my bonnet bee the last two years: code requiring thicker residential exterior walls locally, a continental climate means weather extremes), and make it less alien and forbidding for them, less out of step with their old life than they imagine. I can also teach them how, while “using less” does really shrink industries that rely on high material/energy extraction/consumption, physical resource ownership, and cheap labor to get the bottom line done, it doesn’t kill the economy: instead it promotes a service economy that removes any trace of stigma from the word “service” and restores to it the respect it deserves. People need talented caregiving, education of various kinds, smallhold farming, planning, organization and management, repair/reuse, therapies of various kinds, physical work, craft and artisan work, government and regulation, many other types of professional work, all manner of things that people do for each other, but are often expected (and largely it’s women expected) to do these things for free.

So – I expect that’s the sort of work I’ll wind up doing. Showing people how, at whatever level they want, while going on learning more (I want to understand soil better, in part for gardening without destructivness, but also because I suspect that a lot of what I’m seeing about upping crop yield in climate change pays no attention to soil ecology, and we know how that story goes). Writing and contributing to local policy reports or up the chain to friendly higher-level administrations. So – yes, I’m competent to work in high-tech GHG reduction, but I suspect I’ll work on the sociable conservation end. Again, if you’re interested in deeper conversation about this, please hmu in DMs.

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I skipped most of your post after the first few inaccuracies. I suspect many with scientific background will do, too. This is not a criticism, just a friendly suggestion. If you are truly interested into diving deeper in this field, consider taking some chemistry classes when you retire. So you would be able to use the right terminology when speaking to your audience.

A quick note to say that BB’s objection here seems to be that the description of the problems with CO2 recycling/reuse has to do with the very fuzzy approach, which is definitely not how chemists would describe these things in conversation, and is a sort of 100/20-vision picture that can allow nonscientists to get a sense of the problems involved. (Anyone who knows better will wince at these descriptions, but you’ll also hear them from scientists who’re trying to communicate.) Funded carbon recycling projects are part of my work and have been for several years, so if you’d like a more scientific view, or would just like to discuss, please just DM. Happy to talk at much greater length/specificity.

And BB, you might want to give that screed another go! Lots in there is to do with the resource-intensiveness of how we live and what we might do about it, also how we might work on it now that we’ve got so much time back to ourselves, rather than with electron-herding.

On a somewhat related topic, I really enjoyed the “Kiss the Ground” film (Netflix) - Kiss the Ground Film Trailer (2020) - YouTube

Last spring my church encouraged us to watch (and even had a special code for non-Netflix viewers). Then they organized a large community Zoom meeting, with presentation from local farmers doing some innovative things… then breakout small-groups to discuss.

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I think if we really want to change what’s going on, we will all have to sacrifice.

But on those really hot humid summer nights, when there is no wind power or solar power available, do we all really want to turn off the air conditioning? Or do we really want to use less fossil fuels to keep our houses barely warm in the winter? Do we want to stop traveling? Stop having our convenient grocery stores, delivery services? Cut back on our cell services, wifi? Our increased living standards have gotten us into this mess.

During February, when the midwest was in a polar vortex, and the electric grids were forcing rolling blackouts because they couldnt make enough electricity, and the natural gas companies were asking people to turn down the thermometer during sub zero weather – know what happened (in our metro area of 600K at least)??? nothing. people didnt react. Natural gas usage went up. No decrease in electric use. It’s hard and uncomfortable to sacrifice.

And on the flip side, if we all lived like low-key lifestyle like Bennty and my 80-yr old au-natural parents, what would happen to our economy? If we won’t change our demands, I guess I’ll just venture to say nuclear is probably the best bet going forward for climate change reasons.

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Of course, that electric bus probably has batteries that you said that you dislike in the first post of this thread. But then is mining the materials for the batteries worse than mining the petroleum or natural gas that would be needed to fuel that bus otherwise?

Of course, the electricity has to come from somewhere. But it can make a big difference depending on whether your electricity is generated from mining tons of coal (and sending pollution up the stacks), fracking volumes of gas (and polluting ground water in the process), mining small amounts of uranium (and disposing of the used fuel), or collecting solar and wind energy (storing in those batteries you do not like, so that it is available at night to recharge the bus).

Totally does. Otoh, what’s the quantity of lithium in the bus vs. the number of future electric cars that it replaces? But yes, you’re right. There’s also the “but the old buses worked, what about the embodied carbon” problem (which is why the car I seldom drive is still sitting in my garage).

The point all around, including the uranium mining (and the massives stores of spent fuel cooking away unrecognizably for decades, leaking, getting shipped about when it’s not kept onsite) is that a major part of this picture needs to be use less. If you’re arranging your days so that you’re working with the sun and wind instead of trying to power willfully through the day as though environment means nothing, you will burn far fewer stored midnight electrons, and need fewer batteries.

Well -

the question’s really “do you want to make some adjustments, or do you want your house burnt down or flooded or caved in? What do economies look like when simultaneous large areas of the country are like kicked-over antheaps because of climate events?” About a month ago, my dad’s ex was asking me advice about solar panels, and mentioned that she had trouble getting a quote because her roof, in rural VA, was in too much shade. So I said, I know you’re not planning on staying there forever, but if your roof’s in shade, that means tall trees are right around it. Given climate change, you might want to clear some of that – increased risk of tornado, windstorms, fire. Which sounded a little extreme for a house in Appalachia, but a few weeks later Ida came through, with tornadoes. Not the first time I’ve had a conversation like that, either – some years ago I was working on a climate-science textbook for the Smithsonian, and I had a bit in there with artists’ renditions of Manhattan underwater post-future-hurricane. Before we went to press, Sandy came through, and the pictures stopped being futuristic. I asked my editors if we should pull them in case of trauma, and to their credit, I think, the editors said no, be clear-eyed.

I’d argue that people upped their utility use in the blackouts/vortex because most people have no idea how else to react, and their infrastructure and houses and neighborhoods aren’t set up for anything else. You change that, you change the behavior. You don’t have to suffer to use less, but you do have to know how to do it, and you need to be set up for it. If you want a fancy version of that, this guy ( July | 2021 | All things environmental ) has been blogging about planned sustainability in Hamburg and Vancouver for a long time now. But there’s also a reason why home economics was once a real subject. If you weren’t going to consume like a monster, but you were going to live well, you were going to be careful, and that took thought, also knowing how your house and the things in it worked.

One of the things I’ve come to think is a gigantically self-serving and pernicious myth being promoted by the likes of Bezos and Musk, those paragons of humanity, is the idea that people are so stupid, selfish, and lazy that they’d like nothing better than to be stapled into chairs and fed through a tube while being pleasantly stimulated by war fantasies. Having said that, I can see how they came by the idea: those are exactly the kind of people they spent their young adulthood with. But it’s not my experience of most people. I think people generally like to feel useful and engaged with other people, and as if they’ve done something worthwhile, however small, at the end of the day. So I am not at all hopeless about people learning to take better care, if you don’t make an Everest out of the challenge.

I didn’t have a/c as an adult until I was around 30 (the bigger worry was usually the computer, not me), and over the last few years, I’ve pushed the thermostat up progressively in summer. Right now it’s usually at 77-78F during the summer, with downstairs, where my office is, a few degrees cooler. But then I’ve also put a lot of thought into solar gain and airflow in the house, and the role of humidity. I know this house well, so I use the areas of hot, cold, warm, dry as the seasons change.

In winter, for instance, the warmest, driest part of my house is my bedroom, so my bedroom is also my clothes dryer, obviating the need for electricity-driven humidification. My split-level house also has a stairwell and hallway that are unheated and are essentially a chimney and cold sink; if I don’t block off the hallway, the entire downstairs is cold. So I block it off and allow the stairs and little bit going to the garage to become that cold sink, meaning that when it’s subzero out, the bottom of that stairwell is at around 46-48F. (No pipes are in danger.) Then it also becomes cold storage. The rooms behind that hallway, though, are in the low 60s, which is fine.

I do use less fossil fuel to keep my house barely warm in winter. Notably, though, I am warm. Some years ago I was listening to an apoplectic guy on an MIT Soapbox podcast who was railing against the stupidity of heating an entire house’s air to keep one or two humans warm. And I thought: yeah, that’s spot on, really just another version of powering the 5000-lb minivan to move the 120-lb woman and a couple of 60-lb kids around. So now I wear a lot more wool, which lasts forever, and a heated vest on the coldest winter nights. It’s got a little (yup) battery, which is bad, but costs out environmentally vs. the chronic CH4 use. I can also use an electric oil-filled radiator that runs off the solar panels, though I don’t like to use it at night, because that’s some major wattage vs. the 5W for charging the vest battery. I also remember to get up now and then and move around. And I’ve got a foot-thick down duvet, which I expect I’ll pass down to my daughter, and woolies and sheepskin slippers, average lifespan ten years, so I can turn the thermostat way down at night. There’s a rather tasteful woolen trapper blanket from the 1940s hanging in front of my front door, on a rail, and that does an immense job of stopping bleedthrough cold, especially on windy nights. (The house tests as good and tight, but there’s a limit to how tight you want it.) This winter I’ll be testing some windbreak screening around the northwest corner of the house. The effect of all this on my CH4 use vs my neighbors’ is very visible – I use half or less what they do, even in a polar vortex – and the switch to a high-efficiency furnace and the smallest sensible gas-powered tankless water heater has depressed gas use further here. What would make it even better: thicker exterior walls and a southern exposure. Too late for this house, but this sort of planning should be part of housing code (and someday will). Yes, a developer will get slightly less rich, okay.

Increasingly, I find I go back to mechanical things, simply because you don’t have to use a battery or even electricity, sometimes, and they last forever. I have a little shelf clock that’s next to where I sit and read or knit, and I like it a lot, but it eats button batteries. So I went on ebay and found a lovely little brass travel windup Westclox from the 1960s. No more button batteries. Not mechanical, obviously, but my Casio solar pocket calculator has worked since 1982. My typewriter has worked since 1967, no plug, no booting, no pop-up windows. In general, if I’m buying something new, I’m asking: does it need to be plugged in, does it need to run on batteries, is it full of electronics, and if the answer is yes to any of these things, I look for other ways. When my horrible Target toaster died, I bought a gorgeous (and very expensive) toaster that I expect will be the last toaster I ever buy. It’s a mechanical, repairable thing that was built and tested by a person and makes brilliant toast and cheese toasties. No electronics, no internal batteries, nothing like that. (Sorry to go on about toast: it’s hard to imagine you’re living poorly when you’re eating toasted sourdough rye with local butter and the black raspberry jam you made a couple of months ago.) And the reel mower: no gas, no battery, no cable. Works great. Sharpen the blades every few years and you’re good to go. (Fiskars, btw.)

Wattage is also something I look at when I buy, just as I look at nutrition labels.

Traveling: When I was a kid, travel was expensive, and you just didn’t do it often. We didn’t die, and it didn’t stop us from seeing the world; we just went less often and usually for longer. You already budget moneywise for travel; no reason you can’t budget environmentally. If you want your total carbon emissions to stay under, say, 3 tons a year, and you want to fly somewhere, where are you going to cut? Maybe you won’t buy something else; maybe you’ll take more buses; maybe you’ll put on a sweater. Maybe weekend jaunts will look a bit silly. I really miss the Cape, and want to go again before it’s submerged, but I don’t think I’ll go again unless I can stay for a few weeks, and likely I’ll go off-season. Beastly there when it’s really hot anyway. If I can stay that long, going by rail also begins to make sense. (Ish, it’s still Amtrak. Maybe post-Pete, we’ll see what kind of miracle worker he is or isn’t.)

Cell service: my kid and tenant know to email me if they want my attention timely. I will say, though, that the battery in my 4s is a champ. Still works fine after 10 years. I’m replacing the phone only because 3G is going away (and replacing it with one of my daughter’s castoffs). My quality of life has not suffered from my lack of latest iPhone. A few years ago I started sending actual letters again, and the response from friends old and young was basically confetti and horn-tooting. Everyone loved it, and some people even wrote back. Everyone saves the letters and pictures.

A lot of this stuff is easy for me because I’m old enough to remember when people just lived like this, in a pre-disposable economy, and the worst of it was too much wood-stove smoke permeating things and dogslobber afghans. Other than that? It’s winter, it’s cold; or, it’s summer, it’s hot. But it’s interesting, the curiosity young people have about these ways of living. If your first imperative is not “but you have to get rich off it,” solutions are all around. The main barrier for most people, I think, is that it’s not obvious how to do these things and still live reasonably. I’ve put the work and thought in for the temp engineering in my house, for instance, but this is not something you can or should expect from most people. It just has to be much easier, which again will mean that some few people will have to forgo making the environmentally expensive killings they really want to make. I am fine with that.

I’ll get back to the economy thing in a minute, but, fortunately, it’s as disposable an argument as the “raising the minimum wage will always crash the economy/kill jobs/make inflation skyrocket” perennial. (This gets threatened every time. What actually happens: nothing much.) Also, nuclear, really not a good idea. You want longterm bad problems, nuclear’s how to get there. Blasting the stuff off the earth in rockets: also a nonstarter.

Are you also working on the obesity epidemic, which contributes to human’s environmental footprint?

Picked this up from the Internet:

Are you out there working with people to get MUCH more exercise and eat WAY less? Just getting humans to maintain a “normal” weight would help the environment immensely.


Sure, if you can get people to choose the bus over cars, that helps. But that does not exclude choosing electric vehicles (buses or cars) to replace old vehicles that get worn out where vehicles are still needed. Mining petroleum is quite dirty, and petroleum can also be more of a trade deficit and foreign policy problem than other fuels.

Yes, using less helps. Wasting energy is wasting money, although that concept seems to be ignored by most as they complain about their utility or fuel bills. But most people, even those who use less, use more than zero.

Electricity use peaks in the evening (particularly in the summer; electric companies have higher rates at that time), because people run the air conditioning to cool off their houses from the accumulated heat of the day while doing things like cooking. To change that would require cultural changes like:

  1. Being more tolerant of temperature variation in the house. Someone who is willing to let the temperature in the house vary from 60F to 80F will use less energy than someone who always wants the house to be 72F.
  2. Choosing evening meals that require less cooking.

Electricity use drops to daily minimums during the late night, even with electric buses and cars charging then for the currently cheaper electricity rates.

You can see an example of electricity use over a day at California ISO - Today's Outlook

Of course, burning coal just distributes radioactive materials in any fly ash that escapes into the air (coal has embedded other stuff in it, some of which is radioactive).

:slight_smile: You’re talking to a former aerobics instructor who’s also worked with municipalities to aid in bringing better nutrition to school meal programs. Most of my food-related work now is related less to obesity than it is to helping people find palatable ways of reducing meat consumption, since meat’s so enormously resource-intensive. As people move to plants, especially once they get over what I call the “cheese bump” (where they drown everything in cheese), they generally wind up eating fewer calories anyway. Partly because they start cooking and learning about food.

Incidentally, I find that people who are super into “get people to exercise” tend not to have a whole lot of experience outside young, fairly fit and well-off populations. Avoiding sedentariness is key, but you can bake that in simply by living in more densely-populated places, using the car less, and doing more walking and carrying. (Good study done recently with, iirc, a collaborative NSF/city project investigating citybike use: unsurprisingly, one finding was that uptake was low among older populations, which is a thing I’ve seldom heard planners talk about when it comes to those programs. They’re thinking about young and middle-aged adults, and not so much about getting-around needs and patterns of elderly. (Which I keep forgetting I will be very soon!) Those conversations tend to center around disability and poverty, which, you know, is a thing that could change.)

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Well, it’s about concentration, isn’t it. The problem with nuclear waste isn’t that it’s radioactive, it’s that you’re heaping a whole lot of it together, and there isn’t currently any way we know of either containing it well or knowing and responding to what it’s evolving into as it’s stored. You can follow a decay chain for a single isotope, but the isotopes don’t exist in isolation; you’ve got a whole molecular and isotopic stew in there. The exciting danger is meltdown, but even there it’s a concentration story (see Ken Buesseler’s work in tracing cesium and other isotopes through oceans after Fukushima and Chernobyl). But the bigger problem for using nuclear as a power source is about waste storage and the efforts to recycle.

You might want to start with reducing beef consumption if you want to make the most environmental impact. However, it should also be noted that some non-meat foods like nuts and rice have large impacts on water consumption.