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Fast Food Chains and Their Rising Carbon Emissions

The modern food industry has reshaped how we produce, distribute, and consume food products. However, this transformation has come at a massive cost. According to a new report by The New York Times, fast food companies significantly contribute to global warming despite their pledges to reduce their climate impacts.

Many fast-food restaurants with emissions pledges have not decreased their emissions; some even have increased them. Over half of the top 20 food and restaurant companies worldwide that the Times examined have made no progress on their reduction goals or reported rising emissions levels.

One of these chains, McDonald’s, pledged in 2021 to be carbon-neutral by 2050. Yet, in recent years, their emissions have only grown. Its 2021 emissions were 12 percent higher than in 2015.

What is contributing to their emissions?

Fast food companies’ carbon emissions begin with their supply chain (where they get their products from). The most significant contributor of carbon in their supply chain is the production of beef. Cattle farming generates considerable amounts of methane when they belch. Producing 3.5 ounces of protein releases 110 pounds of greenhouse gases per year. Along with methane emissions, the energy used to power fast food operations is extremely energy intensive.

In response to growing public environmental concerns, some fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Chipotle have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions across their restaurants. Many have made efforts to buy more sustainably sourced ingredients, reduce waste, implement more energy-efficient equipment, and more.

However, environmentalists argue that the companies are doing more greenwashing than genuinely making progress towards their goals.

This is mainly due to how companies report their environmental impact. Most fast-food restaurants are public companies that are not mandated to report their emissions rates. Restaurants are also not required to disclose all their data in public reports, meaning the public may never know the true scope of each company's greenhouse gas contribution and the ineffectiveness of their reduction efforts.

To effectively address their contribution to climate change, the industry as a whole must go beyond pledges and take concrete and transparent steps towards reducing their environmental impact. Hopefully, as awareness grows so will these companies’ desire to meet the demands of environmental activists who wish for a more environmentally responsible and sustainable future.

How can you help?

Further Reading

Extra steps you can take:

  1. Writing for Kids Fight Climate Change: If you are interested in making climate change news more accessible, you should consider joining us! Check out this link: Join the Team | Kids Fight Climate Change: Youth Climate Education

  2. Volunteering at advocacy groups. VolunteerMatch is a great resource to find volunteer opportunities, virtual and in-person. Check out this link: VolunteerMatch

  3. If neither of those options applies to you, there are still ways to raise awareness! Simply by sharing articles such as this one, you are doing your part to spread important climate information. That is activism.


BBC News. “Climate Change: Do I Need to Stop Eating Meat?” BBC News, November 12, 2021.

Creswell, Julie. “For Many Big Food Companies, Emissions Head in the Wrong Direction.” The New York Times, September 24, 2023.

“Modern Food Emissions.” Nature Climate Change 13, no. 3 (March 1, 2023): 205.


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