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What Thanksgiving Costs the Climate Where You Live

How much CO2 did it take to cook a turkey dinner in your state?

Stacy Spensley/Flickr

Say you’re preparing to dig into a Thanksgiving feast of turkey, stuffing, green beans, and pie—how much greenhouse gas was released to make this sumptuous spread?

The answer depends on where you live, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University who’ve investigated the carbon footprint of a roasted 16-pound turkey, green-bean casserole, apple-and-sausage stuffing, and pumpkin pie. In states that rely on fossil fuels for energy, they say this dinner can produce more than 75 pounds of carbon dioxide; states leaning on renewables can see a footprint below 10 pounds.

The researchers took a “farm-to-fork” approach of accounting for all steps of the meal’s production, from agricultural practices to a state’s predominant energy sources to cooking with gas versus electric ovens. Green energy-loving Vermont won the climate prize with a mere 0.2 pounds of CO2, with the runner-ups being Washington (8.1) and Idaho (9.2). Coal-burning West Virginia would churn out 80.1 pounds of CO2 to make this meal, and other big emitters include Kentucky (77.1) and Wyoming (75.5).

Presumably seeking to crush the any remaining cheer out of Thanksgiving, the researchers also looked at the climate costs of flying to celebrate the holiday. Here’s their conclusion, via the university:

“Bringing relatives into town can easily double the carbon footprint of the meal,” said Orchi Banerjee, a sophomore majoring in decision science. “American cars emit close to a pound of carbon dioxide per mile traveled. If your guests collectively drive more than 180 miles round trip, it may help the environment if they stayed home and cooked their own meal.”

Flying is a completely different story. Four people who fly 600 miles round trip have a carbon footprint ten times that of an average prepared Thanksgiving meal, before they even sit down at the table.

Before you feel too bad chowing down on that big bird, at least praise yourself for not cooking beef, which they say can “easily double the footprint of your feast.”

Carnegie Mellon University

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.