We Ignore Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Livestock Industry at Our Own Peril
ENVIRONMENT, 25 Jul 2016
19 Jul 2016 – According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, the production of meat and other animal-based products is responsible for around 18 to 20 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
If FAO’s assessment is correct, animal waste and the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers to grow fodder annually create about 6 million tons of nitrous oxide–65-70 percent of our total emissions. The impact to global temperatures of this is equivalent to roughly two billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. Besides nitrous oxide, the livestock industry produces more than 100 million tons of methane per year, heating the planet as much as three and a half billion tons of carbon dioxide. This is further exacerbated by the clearing of vast swathes of tropical rainforests for pasture and growing fodder, annually releasing an additional 2.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Our total emissions of carbon dioxide currently amount to slightly more than 35 billion tons, in addition to which we also produce at least 350 million tons of methane and 9 million tons of nitrous oxide.
Many governments, municipalities and private companies have already started to implement programs aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a fraction of their current levels in the coming decades. In 2015, more than 90 percent of new energy investments have shifted to renewables, with fossil fuels and nuclear power struggling to attract the remaining 10 percent.
Similarly, new technological solutions for reducing vehicular emissions as well as industrial production, construction, lighting, and the heating and cooling of buildings are either being developed or already implemented. Even airlines and shipping companies have accepted the challenge. Some sectors have embraced these challenges with more enthusiasm than others, but there seems to be a general consensus that considerable changes are needed to prevent a full-scale environmental catastrophe.
The exception to the general shift toward environmental sustainability appears to be food production. Governments, and intergovernmental organizations like FAO are still discussing ways of increasing the global meat production from 200 million to 470 million tons by 2050.
This is of great concern even if meat, dairy and other animal products really were responsible for only 20 per cent of our combined greenhouse gas emissions. Even then, doubling the industry’s contribution would probably make it impossible to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, as agreed in Paris.
It is possible that the role of the livestock industry has been seriously underestimated. According to current estimates, natural lakes and ponds probably produce about 85 million tons and man-made reservoirs between 20-100 million tons of methane each year. While methane from reservoirs is considered to be a by-product of the energy industry, emissions from natural lakes, ponds and rivers are classified as “natural emissions”.
Research has shown that there are significant variations in the methane levels produced by bodies of freshwater. Heterotrophic lakes whose water and sediments only contain trace amounts of nutrients and organic matter produce very little methane. The smallest measured annual per hectare emissions from such lakes have been as little as 0.78 kilograms. At the other end of the spectrum, seriously eutrophic or nutrient-rich lakes with vast quantities of dead aquatic plants and algae, can release up to 190 tons of methane per hectare per year. In other words: there is a 243,590-fold difference between the largest and the smallest measured per hectare emissions, a spectrum covering almost six full orders of magnitude.
Can we therefore, really assume that the runoff from livestock and fertilizers has nothing to do with these emissions? Most of the methane released into the air from eutrophic lakes and reservoirs cannot really be considered natural emissions, and should not be counted as such. Similarly, much of the nitrous oxide currently defined as natural emissions from oceans or from natural soils should probably be re-classified as livestock-related.
Besides, there are many agricultural practices likely to reduce the amount of organic carbon stored in the trees and soils, as well as tropical deforestation which has historically been the centre of attention. According to studies made in China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Argentina, Brazil, Britain and the USA, vast tracts of pasture that used to be natural grasslands are still losing significant amounts of organic carbon due to overgrazing.
According to one assessment, humans annually burn 4.3 billion tons of biomass, classified as carbon. Of this, wood for fuel and the use of other biofuels account for 1.3 billion tons, whereas the remainder is linked to the livestock industry. This means that we could, at least in theory, reduce our carbon emissions by almost three billion tons by eliminating the biomass burning that is not related to energy production and by using the saved biomass to replace fossil fuels. Current biomass burning practises also produce very large amounts of soot, which has a strong impact on the global rise in temperatures, as well as creating an additional 40-50 million tons of methane and 1.3 million tons of nitrous oxide.
Currently, 3.5 billion hectares of permanent grazing lands and hundreds of millions of hectares of farmlands are being exploited for the cultivation of animal feed used for meat and dairy industries. If we reduced the consumption of animal products and replaced them with alternatives made from soy, wheat, oat or mushroom proteins or by culturing animal stem cells, we could convert huge areas of land to protected forests. These reclaimed forest can in turn absorb vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Alternatively, we could use the same land for growing biofuels.
This means, today we should be focusing on the environmental degradation caused by the livestock industry, which itself is under pressure from an ever increasing demand for meat and dairy. Much of what has been mentioned deserves urgent and extensive attention and further research worldwide.
It may be impossible to stop global warming without reducing the consumption of meat. However, if we are able to replace a substantial portion of real meat with alternatives, reaching the goals adopted in Paris might actually become much easier than anybody could have ever imagined.
Risto Isomaki is a science and science fiction writer whose latest non-fiction book, Meat, Milk and Climate, deals with the environmental impact of the meat and dairy industries.
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