A Case for Reducing Global Warming Quickly

The following is a guest blog post written by Robert Goodland, former World Bank lead environmental advisor and recipient of the first Coolidge Memorial Medal by the World Conservation Union in 2008 for outstanding contributions to environmental conservation.

The world can quickly address record temperatures this year in places as diverse as Pakistan and Japan, Moscow and California, by replacing 25 percent of today’s products derived from livestock (mainly cows, pigs, and chickens) with alternatives. The details are in a World Watch magazine article by Jeff Anhang and me, where we estimate that livestock are responsible for at least half of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

One quarter of land worldwide is now used for grazing livestock, and a third of all arable land is used for growing feed. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Our analysis has been widely cited, including on the Government of China’s official climate change website. Chris Mentzel, the CEO of Clean Energy Maui LLC, has written that our analysis persuaded him that a 1-percent reduction in meat would have the same environmental effect as $3 trillion of solar energy financing.

We developed our case using our environmental assessment experience at the World Bank Group. In my 23 years there, I wrote most of the Bank’s environmental policies and assessed environmental risk in numerous industries, countries, and projects. For my co-author’s name to be on our article, it had to be cleared by World Bank Group management, which required extensive peer review.

Our case is the only pragmatic one available for reducing global warming quickly. Most climatologists estimate that only several years remain before climate change becomes irreversible. Yet the common idea of replacing fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy requires decades to implement. It must still be pursued to keep emissions down over the long term. Meanwhile, alternatives to livestock products can be scaled up and can significantly reduce emissions quickly and inexpensively.

Some people will have trouble believing that eating meat can cause any change in climate, let alone imperil humanity. However, they may not know that the world’s population of land-based livestock has grown sixfold since 1960–meaning that more than 50 billion animals will be raised in 2010.

One quarter of land worldwide is now used for grazing livestock, and a third of all arable land is used for growing feed. Twenty percent of the Amazon forest has been destroyed, fivefold the area of England, mainly for livestock and feed production. When tropical forest is burned, not only are greenhouse gases emitted, but the world’s largest carbon sink is steadily shrunk.

Lower estimates than ours of livestock-related emissions don’t count all of livestock’s indirect inputs. They also don’t count the direct impact of livestock respiration–or its reflection in foregone carbon absorption in land set aside for livestock and feed production.

Our analysis proposes counting either carbon in respiration or foregone carbon absorption attributable to livestock.  That’s because reality no longer reflects the old model of the carbon cycle, which proposes that photosynthesis perfectly offsets respiration.  That model assumed roughly constant levels of respiration and photosynthesis on Earth. But respiration has increased exponentially with livestock — while these animals have caused a dramatic decline in the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity, along with large and accelerating increases in soil carbon volatilization.

Some people claim that pasture-raised livestock make meat climate-friendly. But only about 8 percent of meat is produced from entirely pasture-raised livestock, and little land is available to increase this amount without further deforestation. These animals emit up to triple the methane released by factory-farmed livestock, and contribute greatly to soil carbon volatilization.

Some claim that technology can adequately mitigate livestock-related emissions. But available technology can mitigate emissions by only a trivial amount, and is impractical for most livestock.

Some argue that many poor people have no alternative to raising livestock for their livelihoods. But tens of millions of poor people’s livestock have died recently due to climate catastrophes. Replacing these animals would risk a similar fate for the new livestock. Meanwhile, supporting new livelihoods for those whose livestock die in climate disasters would be less risky. Microfinance, off-grid electricity, computers, and mobile technology have generated dramatic growth in many poor rural communities.

Most of the land used worldwide for livestock and feed production can regenerate forest. In woody vegetation and the soil beneath, much more carbon can be sequestered than in grasslands now set aside for grazing and feed–as much as the increase in atmospheric carbon since 1980, according to James Hansen, the U.S. government’s top climate scientist.

Habits form around people’s food choices. But these choices are induced by fiscal measures and marketing, which have strongly promoted livestock products. They can promote alternatives instead.

Trying tasty new foods is commonly considered desirable. Meat and dairy products can be replaced with substitutes such as seitan-based “chicken,” soy-based “beef,” nut-based milks, and coconut-based ice cream.

Meat and dairy substitutes can be promoted like digital technology. Within a decade, manufacturers have switched almost entirely from analog televisions and telephones to digital versions, propelled by savings in materials and energy use, along with other improvements. Like digital technology, meat and dairy substitutes can deliver better quality at lower cost, while fulfilling the world’s priority of reversing climate disruption.

Outdoors to a unique degree, agriculture is exposed to greater risk from livestock-related emissions than any other industry’s risk from the same emissions. So the food industry has a compelling commercial incentive to reduce these emissions. Meat and dairy substitutes require no subsidies or offsets. Consumers can buy more of them tomorrow.

In fact, replacing livestock products with substitutes is the only way for industry and the public collaboratively to take a single, powerful action to reduce climate change quickly.

To read more about livestock and climate change see: “Livestock and Climate Change: What if the key actors in climate change are…cows, pigs, and chickens?,”  China Climate Change Net-Info, and writing by Chris Mentzel, CEO of Clean Energy Maui LLC.

Robert Goodland is former World Bank lead environmental advisor and was awarded the first Coolidge Memorial Medal by the World Conservation Union in 2008 for outstanding contributions to environmental conservation.

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