Use the closing parties in a climate-friendly way with tips from Geert Noels

By eating less meat and cheese and fighting food waste, we can already reduce our CO₂ emissions in Belgium by almost a tenth. Without sacrificing quality of life or wealth growth. Economist Geert Noels argues this in his book ‘Climate shock’.

Good news for those who want to start the new year festively. We don’t have to stop with the Burgundian dining table. It is enough to adjust our diet. Eating beef no more than twice a month, cheese twice a week, supplemented with chicken, pork and fish, but in smaller portions, is one of the most effective solutions to combat global warming. If we all switch to such a climate diet, Belgium will emit 7.5 million tonnes less greenhouse gases annually, representing a 6 percent reduction in 2030.

This is evident from the new book ‘Climate shock’ by Geert Noels, managing director and chief economist of the asset manager Econopolis, and his employees Kristof Eggermont and Yanaika Denoyelle. They calculated twenty concrete solutions to make Belgium climate neutral (see graph). Their remarkable conclusion is that this need not be at the expense of our quality of life or our growth in wealth. ‘We can remain Burgundians’, they write. “It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing story.”

Some of these climate solutions can take us far in the short term, and each of us can apply them. Changing our eating behavior is one of them. With our normal daily diet, we emit over 1.2 tonnes of greenhouse gas per year per person. Belgium. If we replace it with a climate diet where meat and dairy products are limited, we can halve our annual emissions. It is therefore a measure with a particularly large effect, over which we have full control.

“A more selective choice of proteins at the dinner table makes a big difference,” write Noels and his colleagues. Animal protein sources such as meat and dairy products have a much heavier impact on the environment than fruit or vegetables. The ecological footprint of beef and cheese in particular is enormous. In Belgium alone, food production emits 23 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year. More than half are caused by meat and dairy products.

Making Belgium climate neutral does not have to come at the expense of our quality of life or our growth in wealth. We can remain Burgundians.

Gert Noels

Chief Economist Econopolis


Ruminants like cows and sheep, because of the wind, not only release large amounts of the greenhouse gas methane, they also have a huge ecological footprint. For 1 kg of steak, you need 15,500 liters of water and 25 kg of animal feed. That feed includes grain and soy produced in countries like Argentina or Brazil, resulting in deforestation and a decline in soil and water quality.

With 37 kg of greenhouse gas emissions per kg, beef is one of the most harmful foods for the environment. Cheese, as a product derived from livestock farming, also has a big influence. With more than 20 kg of CO₂ per kg, the emissions are more than three times higher than those of the chicken.

But eating meat is deeply rooted in Belgian culture, Noels and his colleagues are fully aware of that. “All in all, support in Belgium for eating less meat, let alone veganism, remains very limited. Adapting dietary patterns via a vegetarian, vegan or climate diet is a solution with a very large effect, but difficult to achieve.’

A turnaround is possible, experts believe, but then there must be sufficient climate-friendly alternatives that make citizens feel comfortable. Simon De Corte, innovation advisor at Ghent University, is also convinced of this. “Alternative proteins based on microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and yeast are on the rise. They have great potential as full-fledged meat substitutes, but the taste, texture, nutritional value and cost must be top notch.’

If we all switch to a climate-friendly diet, our country will emit 7.5 million tonnes less greenhouse gases every year.

Gert Noels

Chief Economist Econopolis

According to De Corte, micro-organisms also provide an excellent opportunity to transform agricultural and industrial residues into high-quality proteins. At the beginning of this year, The ProteInn Club was created in Ghent for this purpose, a collaboration platform for 30 companies and research institutions that aims to boost the development of these proteins. Innovative start-ups are also involved, such as These Vegan Cowboys, who recently had cheese produced in a laboratory without the use of a live cow.


Another obstacle to the transition to a diet with a lower climate footprint is the relatively low price we now pay in the store for a piece of meat. Emissions of greenhouse gases are not included here. Only by doing so will products with a smaller climate footprint, such as chicken or fish, become cheaper than products with a large climate footprint.

Everything starts with transparent data across the entire chain, from farmer to supermarket. “We need a uniform system for the whole of Belgium that records the greenhouse gas emissions for each step, from agriculture, transport and industrial processing”, state the authors. “If we then set up a CO₂ tax, we can introduce a tax at each step, so that each party has to pay an amount per tonnes of emitted greenhouse gases. It motivates the emitter to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.’

Labeling or clear information on the packaging is essential to win over consumers to sustainable food. But it is not obvious either. ‘It easily costs 10,000 euros to map the full ecological footprint of a specific product’, says Michiel De Bauw, who researched this as a bioengineer and has recently become active as an expert in sustainable food in the Colruyt supermarket chain. “There is also a threat of oversaturation. You already have nutriscore and all kinds of organic or fair trade brands. If you know that it usually only takes a few seconds to make a buying decision about food, it’s not easy for a consumer to take all that information into account.’

Nevertheless, De Bauw has a positive assessment of the market potential for an ecological score. “Experiments show that Belgian consumers are prepared to pay an average of 13 percent more if they can take a step forward for the environmental impact. So he is open to it. Labels can have an impact if they are integrated into a wider approach to encourage customers to switch to sustainable food.’

Use-by dates on labels can also help reduce food waste. There is a difference between ‘best before (best before)’ and a best before date, ‘use by (best before)’. In the first case, there is a good chance that the product will still be in perfect condition after the THT date. Therefore, it should no longer appear on some foods that last a very long time in the Netherlands.

37 kilos

With 37 kg of greenhouse gas emissions per kg, beef is one of the most harmful foods for the environment.

In developed countries such as Belgium, the greatest loss of food occurs at the back of the chain: at supermarkets, the catering industry and especially in the consumer’s refrigerator. Household waste turns out to be a more difficult problem than expected. “And while we all have a relatively large influence in this story, and everyone can make a difference,” says Noels. If every Belgian wastes 50 percent less food by 2030, we will save 3.8 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, which corresponds to a reduction of 3 percent. ‘It’s the same as if our country had 25 extra sonic forests.’

It involves many things that bring about small changes and do not seem convincing, says Noels. ‘For example, I make soup or applesauce from vegetables or fruit that have deteriorated a bit, or I toast bread that is already a bit hard, or use it in a salad.’

What may have helped him the most in reducing food waste is going to the supermarket daily instead of weekly. ‘Because you only have to plan one day ahead and make fewer incorrect estimates about the stock you’re going to buy. Every week I also check what ends up in the bin and I try to monitor the amount of food loss. It has brought me from 25 to 30 percent food waste to 5 to 10 percent.’

The amazing thing is that the small changes are not so much driven by ideology or morality. Environmental, economic and health reasons influence our behaviour. “And that’s what we want with this book,” says Noels. ‘Make people aware without lifting a finger.’

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