Global-warming debates shouldn’t exclude role of livestock

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.

Photo by Andy Wright, Sheffield, England

Photo by Andy Wright, Sheffield, England

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.

Global-warming objectivity is debating “why,” not “if”

A classic example of so-called “objectivity” functioning as a mask for ideological obfuscation is the “debate” over global warming. The form over which the corporate mass media presents the issue is as if there is a question of whether Earth’s climate is changing, presenting humanity with grave challenges.

A foolish “debate,” as climate scientists are nearly unanimous in the reality of global warming, and the world’s temperatures are indisputably rising as gases that create a greenhouse effect continue to be pumped into the atmosphere. More than three decades have passed since the last year in which global temperatures were below average (1976) and each of the past twelve years ranks among the fourteen hottest years ever recorded. Droughts, severe heat waves and devastating storms are becoming more common, and Arctic Ocean ice coverage again reached an all-time low last summer.

There is no other explanation for this accelerating phenomenon other than increases in atmospheric gases that trap heat. And there is no other explanation for the sources of those accumulations other than human industrial and agricultural activities. Because oil and gas production and usage are the largest single source of human-caused greenhouse gases, companies involved in that industry have incentives to deny global warming, and the money to propagate their desired message.

Energy companies, automobile manufacturers and their lobbyists fund a variety of “research institutes” that pump out reports with pre-determined conclusions. At least two of their denialist institutes started life as shills for the tobacco industry, pumping out reports denying links between smoking and health problems. Excepting those news outlets with obvious Right-wing biases, what is often at work here is an unthinking application of the concept of “neutrality,” a cherished ideal in the mass media of many countries. The concept of media “neutrality” is easily exploited by lavishly funded corporate fronts that pump out reports and provide spokespeople.

“Neutrality,” in any rational sense, shouldn’t mean a “balance” between reality and self-serving non-reality. A legitimate debate on global warming would center on which human activities have significant responsibility and at what point greenhouse gas emissions reach a tipping point where climate change would be beyond human ability to counter effectively.

The industry-or-livestock debate

Environmentalists and others concerned about the health of the world are in agreement that greenhouse gases are putting Earth at serious risk. The debate here concerns whether industrial activity or animal agriculture is the main culprit. Determining which is the bigger contributor to global warming partly requires determining what gases contribute most. This, too, as a byproduct of the industry/livestock debate, is itself a matter of debate.

Some groups focus on the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because there is far more of it than other greenhouse gases. For example, 350.org derives it name from a consensus that humanity must reduce the level of carbon dioxide gases in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm) from the current 392 ppm but still well above the pre-industrial level of 275 ppm. Similarly, the Oxford e-Research Centre’s Trillionth Tonne web site says that when humanity has pumped 1 trillion tons of carbon (cumulatively, for all history) into the atmosphere, runaway climate change will ensue; the web site’s calculator estimates that more than 566 billion tons have been emitted.

Both of these groups acknowledge the other greenhouse gases, but see carbon dioxide — and, thus, industrial activity — as the crucial factor. The Trillionth Tonne web site says:

“Other greenhouse gases also cause warming, while other forms of pollution cause cooling. So far, these effects very approximately cancel out, but this is unlikely to remain so. … Carbon dioxide emissions are the single most important factor in the future and, under all current scenarios, the net effect of other emissions is to add to the warming caused by carbon dioxide. So to limit total global warming caused by human activity to less than 2 °C, we clearly have to limit the warming caused by carbon dioxide to less than 2 °C.”

A rise in global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius above the long-term median is a more common way of expressing the climatic tipping point.

Some organizations see contributions from industrial activity and animal agriculture. The Skeptical Science web site maintained by an Australian scientist, for example, says:

“While methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, there is over 200 times more CO2 in the atmosphere. E.g., CO2 levels are 380 ppm while methane levels are 1.75ppm. Hence the amount of warming methane contributes is calculated at 28% of the warming CO2 contributes. … This is not to say methane can be ignored — reducing methane levels is definitely a goal to pursue.”

And then there are vegan and vegetarian activists who say that it is animal agriculture that is mostly responsible for greenhouse gases, and that changes in diet from meat consumption would mitigate the threat. The non-profit agency EarthSave, for example, says that focusing on carbon dioxide levels is a mistake:

“Domestic legislative efforts concentrate on raising fuel economy standards, capping CO2 emissions from power plants, and investing in alternative energy sources. … This is a serious miscalculation. … It’s true that human activity produces vastly more CO2 than all other greenhouse gases put together. However, this does not mean it is responsible for most of the earth’s warming. Many other greenhouse gases trap heat far more powerfully than CO2, some of them tens of thousands of times more powerfully. When taking into account various gases’ global warming potential—defined as the amount of actual warming a gas will produce over the next one hundred years—it turns out that gases other than CO2 make up most of the global warming problem. … The surprising result is that sources of CO2 emissions are having roughly zero effect on global temperatures in the near-term!”

Sorting out competing theories

We have a wide range of opinions. To sort it out, it is necessary to find data and make some calculations. Activists who zero in on animal agriculture as the problem say methane and other gases are the problem, not carbon dioxide. They frequently cite a United Nations report issued in 2006, “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options.” This is a detailed analysis that seeks to quantify the impact of animal agriculture on the environment and possible solutions to ameliorating the effects. The report says:

“The livestock sector is a major player [in climate change], responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport. … The sector emits 37 percent of [human-caused] methane. … It emits 65 percent of [human-caused] nitrous oxide, the great majority from manure.”

The methane and nitrous oxide that are pumped into the atmosphere matter, because those are much more effective greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Methane is 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide is 310 times more powerful, according to internationally accepted standards. Those multiples are adjusted for the fact that CO2 is stable long term, while methane dissipates in an average of 12 years and nitrous oxide in 114 years. The United States Environmental Protection Agency publishes online the amount of the main greenhouse gases produced each year in the U.S., and the amounts generated by the various sources of those gases, calculated in millions of metric tons per carbon dioxide equivalent.

Using the agency’s 2010 figures to calculate the various amounts accountable to industrial activity and to animal agriculture (which are calculated in carbon dioxide equivalents, counting one methane ton as equivalent to 21 carbon dioxide tons and one nitrous oxide ton as 310 carbon dioxide tons), global-warming transmissions related to animal agriculture total three percent of industrial activity. (In making this calculation, I excluded emissions attributed to crop agriculture, natural causes and activities that contributed minuscule amounts.)

If these figures are in any way accurate, they demonstrate that industrial activity, in particular fossil fuel extraction and consumption, is overwhelmingly the main culprit. The Environmental Protection Agency report was prepared by professionals and scientists, not political-appointee higher-ups, so I see no reason to not regard its statistics as reliable. (Nor have I found any better or comparable data, which does not mean such data doesn’t exist.)

According to the report, fossil fuel consumption accounts for more than 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. Natural gas systems are the largest contributor to methane emissions, with livestock and landfill waste also significant. Agricultural soil management accounts for about two-thirds of nitrous oxide emissions (I did not count it for either side). Overall, the Environmental Protection Agency calculates that, from U.S. sources, the total contribution of methane and nitrous oxide to global warming are 17 percent that of carbon dioxide.

On the other hand, animal agriculture is not fully accounted for in the above report. Some portion of fossil fuel use is attributable to animal agriculture and the carbon imbalance caused by destruction of forest to clear land for livestock production is far more acute in other parts of the world, among other issues. Another section of the United Nations report quoted earlier says:

“Livestock also affect the carbon balance of land used for pasture or feed crops, and thus indirectly contribute to releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The same happens when forest is cleared for pastures. … Some of the indirect effects are difficult to estimate, as land use related emissions vary widely, depending on biophysical factors as soil, vegetation and climate as well as on human practices.”

Those effects aren’t accounted for in the Environmental Protection Agency report. This is a debate that must continue; I am under no illusions that I have settled anything definitively. I should stress that the statistics are U.S. outputs for 2010, not global outputs, so the true planetary ratios likely vary. All sides quoted here agree that global warming is a dire problem that must be tackled now, as any reality-based analysis must do. Debating how to tackle global warming is immeasurably more productive than taking seriously tired arguments from self-interested deniers.

There is no single route to reversing global warming. Regardless of where the emphasis should be, Western consumerism is clearly unsustainable. The world’s people will not be using resources the way they now do in the not too distant future, whether changes are voluntary or imposed by the limits of nature. Endless growth on a finite planet can’t last forever.