The struggle to halt global warming ordinarily focuses on fossil fuel consumption and use, currently exemplified by the Alberta tar sands and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico. It would be foolish to disregard that, but what if the rapidly expanding livestock industry has been overlooked as a major contributor to global warming?
Since I last wrote about global warming, I have had my attention drawn to a paper published in World Watch that provides a strong argument that animal agriculture is significantly undercounted as a contributor to global warming. What makes this study interesting is that, in contrast to unsupported claims about methane sometimes made by vegan and animal-rights activists, it grounds its arguments squarely on carbon dioxide.
The World Watch paper, authored by environmental scientists Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, concludes that livestock contributes at least 51 percent of annual greenhouse-gas emissions, and provocatively advocates substituting meat and dairy products with analogs as the fastest way to avoid the planet reaching a climatic tipping point. The paper argues that there is not enough time, nor sufficient political will, to make necessary changes in energy and transportation before irreversible climate changes are upon us.
The sources, and thus the solutions, to global warming constitute a legitimate debate. I am under no illusions that I will be settling anything here. But although the ideas under discussion are far from settled, they are scientifically grounded and merit strong consideration. And what if this paper is correct? We do ourselves no favors by dismissing it.
The starting point for the World Watch paper is the authors’ critique of a lengthy report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which is often cited by vegan and animal-rights activists for its attribution of livestock as responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Interestingly, the paper criticizes the FAO report for badly underestimating animal agriculture’s contribution.
Livestock do exhale and trees are cut down
The World Watch paper cites seven sources that are undercounted by the FAO, the most significant of which are overlooked respiration by livestock, forest destroyed to create grazing lands, undercounted methane and an significant undercounting of the number of livestock. Adding up undercounted and additional misallocated sources, greenhouse-gas emissions attributable to livestock total about 32,500 million metric tons as measured in carbon dioxide equivalents. The FAO report’s estimate is about 7,500 million metric tons.
Livestock respiration is the single biggest source undercounted, contributing 13.7 percent of the global total of greenhouse-gas emissions, itself comparable to the FAO estimate of all livestock-related emissions. Professors Goodland and Anhang wrote in World Watch that the FAO report incorrectly considered livestock respiration to be not a contributor to, or possibly a net subtraction from, global warming because it viewed respiration as part of a biological cycle. They wrote:
“[L]ivestock (like automobiles) are a human intervention and convenience, not part of pre-human times, and a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe. Moreover, while over time an equilibrium of CO2 may exist between the amount respired by animals and the amount photosynthesized by plants, that equilibrium has been never been static. Today, tens of billions more livestock are exhaling CO2 than in pre-industrial days, while Earth’s photosynthetic capacity (its capacity to keep carbon out of the atmosphere by absorbing it in plant mass) has declined sharply as forest has been cleared. (Meanwhile, of course, we add more carbon to the air by burning fossil fuels, further overwhelming the carbon-absorption system.)”
Moreover, chopping down forests removes carbon sinks, leaving more carbon dioxide to remain in the air and release the carbon that had been stored. Often this is not accounted for in determining greenhouse-gas sources. Estimates of the number of livestock range up to 70 billion and that takes a lot of space — the livestock advocacy organization International Livestock Research Institute estimates that 45 percent of the world’s land surface is dedicated to the industry.
Surprisingly, the FAO report so often cited by vegan and animal-rights activists concludes by calling for intensified factory farming! Because this is buried on page 236, it is understandable that few are aware of that. The FAO report sees the current heavy consumption of meat as a given:
“If the projected future demand for livestock products is to be met, it is hard to see an alternative to intensification of livestock production. Indeed, the process of intensification must be accelerated if the use of additional land, water and other resources is to be avoided. The principle means of limiting livestock’s impact on the environment must be to reduce land requirements for livestock production, including the implicit water, nutrients and other resources represented by land. This involves the intensification of the most productive arable and grassland used to produce feed or pasture; and the retirement of marginally used land where this is socially acceptable and where other uses of such land, such as for environmental purposes, are in demand.”
The practical effect of concentrating livestock production in smaller areas at current levels would be more inhumane factory farming. That is no solution, from an environmental or moral standpoint.
Can consumers induce market changes?
Animal agriculture is a significant contributor to global warming, regardless of whether we accept that livestock contributes at least 51 percent of greenhouse gases. A solution to global warming must include addressing this aspect of the problem. The World Watch paper proposes three “market incentives” to tackle the problem:
- Because food companies already suffer from global warming-amplified weather disruptions, it is in their interest to act to slow down global warming.
- Because rising petroleum prices and terminal decline in petroleum production will have potentially catastrophic effects on livestock production, food companies can be ahead of the competition by replacing livestock products with alternatives sooner.
- Food companies can produce and market soy- and seitan-based alternatives to a wide variety of traditional meat and dairy products.
The authors estimate that if 25 percent of current livestock products were replaced with alternatives by 2017, a minimum of 12.5 percent reduction in global anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions would be achieved, roughly equaling the goal of international climate treaties. The authors note that meat alternatives taste good and are often healthier — to that I have no argument as it dovetails my personal experience. But, in essence, the authors conceive this as a marketing solution, both to induce consumers to switch from meat-based diets and as “investment opportunities” for food companies that promote themselves as helping to slow global warming. They wrote:
“By replacing livestock products with analogs, consumers can take a single powerful action collectively to mitigate most [greenhouse gases] worldwide. Labeling analogs with certified claims of the amount of GHGs averted can give them a significant edge.”
I fear this is slipping too close to an “individual” solution rather than a “systemic” solution. Although these ideas seek to bring change to industry, ultimately it is based on individuals changing their individual behavior. And it is based on “market solutions,” although it is unconstrained markets that have allowed the livestock, energy and other industries to grow powerful enough to run roughshod over the environment and be indifferent to the climatic damage to which they are major contributors.
Environmental damage is an external cost for corporations in the present-day capitalist system — that is, the costs of environmental destruction is borne by society, not by the company inflicting the damage — and until that externality changes, market solutions based on changes in consumer patterns and awareness can only go so far.
In answer to this, it is argued that greenhouse-gas emission taxes could be imposed to accelerate a reduction in reliance on fossil fuels and promote reforestation. An additional argument is that large-scale livestock die-offs are occurring more frequently and that global warming may cause such declines in livestock population that reductions in meat and dairy consumption may become involuntary.
Professors Goodland and Anhang in their paper acknowledge that reductions in energy and transportation are desirable but that bringing about changes in the livestock industry is the fastest way to halt the buildup of greenhouse gases before we reach the climatic tipping point. Their paper concludes with a declaration that the “case for change” is not only a public-policy or ethical case, but “also a business case.”
Given the short-term mentality of modern business, driven by uncontrolled market forces, it will be difficult for business leaders to come to such understandings; indeed, agribusiness and energy corporations are the most energetic in denying the existence of global warming, even as the weather grows ever more erratic. That 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate warming is human-caused, while only 45 percent of the general public does so, is a testament to the power of entrenched industrial interests and the bottomlessly funded corporate misinformation industry. Activities remaining at the individual level are powerless against this power.
A permanent long-term solution requires a transformation in economic systems, not tinkering with consumption patterns. Yet time is not a luxury we possess. There is no alternative to tackling global warming and the enormous danger that hangs over humanity today, and the solutions suggested by Professors Goodland and Anhang provide tangible objectives, in addition to the no less difficult tasks environmentalists face in confronting the energy and transportation industries.
We ignore concrete ideas at our peril. And what if animal agriculture does account for half of humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions? There is too much at stake to ignore any aspect of the problem.