Have the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) been miscalculating GHG emissions from livestock? An article in the latest edition of World Watch magazine outlines how livestock emissions have been severely underestimated. In “Livestock and Climate Change,” Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang deduce that livestock and their byproducts annually account for at least 51 percent of global GHG emissions (way above common estimates) and suggest decreasing meat consumption as a means of mitigating climate change.

The FAO’s widely cited 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow credits livestock for only about 18 percent of annual global emissions. According to Goodland and Anhang, this report (among many others) has overlooked and underestimated many sources of livestock emissions. For example, the FAO states that “livestock is not a net source of CO2” and that emissions from respiration “are part of a rapidly cycling biological system.” According to Goodland and Anhang, however, livestock (like automobiles) are a “human invention and convenience” and the large numbers (and subsequent emissions) only exist to satisfy consumer demands. Emissions from livestock respiration should therefore be given equal consideration as automobile emissions during international climate change negotiations.

Clouddragon pic

Should livestock emissions receive equal consideration as automobile emissions?

The global population is estimated to increase by about 35 percent from 2006 to 2050.  The FAO projects livestock numbers to double over the same time period; Goodland and Anhang reason that livestock emissions will double accordingly. They explain that growth in livestock markets will increase deforestation to produce grassland which will further accelerate climate change. Rainforests store about 200 tons of carbon per hectare; moderately degraded grassland (from grazing) stores only about 8 tons of carbon per hectare.

Worldwatch’s Vital Signs trend, “Meat Production Continues to Rise,” provides a synopsis of meat production and outlines some of the other environmental and health issues associated with factory-farmed livestock. Not only are the living conditions harmful to animal welfare, but they pose significant health risks to humans. Avian flu, Nipah virus and BSE (mad cow disease) are a few of the many health issues associated with livestock factories and their hazardous wastes. Reducing meat consumption would not only benefit human health and the environment, it would also help reduce malnutrition in developing countries.

“Replacing livestock with better alternatives,” Goodland and Anhang conclude, would consequently provide a rapid and effective strategy to reduce atmospheric concentrations of GHG emissions and lessen the effects of climate change. The FAO estimates that 37 percent of human-induced methane emissions, for example, is generated by livestock. Although methane has 20 times the effect on climate change than carbon dioxide, its half life is only about 8 years compared to carbon dioxide’s half life of at least 100 years.  Replacing livestock with vegetarian alternatives would consequently affect the atmospheric GHG concentration more quickly than current international mitigation efforts to promote energy efficiency and “clean” energy production.

Demand for animal protein generally increases as countries develop. Many regions still practice sustainable farming methods, but factory farms have been increasing to meet the demands of wealthy consumers.

There is no silver bullet that will address climate change. This new publication does make clear, however, that livestock play a larger role in global GHG emissions than previously thought. Unfortunately, meat consumption provides yet another illustration of the global inequalities and injustices associated with climate change, where consumption in industrialized countries directly degrades the quality of life in developing countries.

Please click on the following links to purchase a copy of World Watch magazine, Vital Signs or a more in-depth report on the livestock industry: Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry.

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GHG emissions, livestock emissions, population, vegetarian