Livestock’s Role in Climate Change

By David Schmidt

Reprinted from: Animal Ag

Happy New Year to all of you! Now back to the work at hand.

Livestock – Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector: Global Public Opinion on Meat and Dairy Consumption is a report that you all should read. The premise is that although animal agriculture is among the major contributors of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (and hence human induced climate change), it is essentially exempted from regulations and public scrutiny.

The press release for the report tells the story. Human consumption of meat and dairy products is a major driver of climate change, but this new paper finds that there is a major lack of public awareness and understanding of the link between eating meat and dairy and climate change.

The United Nation Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO, 2013) reports that globally the livestock sector contributes 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions (about 7.1 Gt CO2 equivalent annually (Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock, FAO 2013). This amount is nearly equivalent to the contribution by the transportation sector. (NOTE: These estimates have been updated from the FAO errant report from 2006 “Livestock’s Long Shadow“.)

In siting the 2013 FAO report, the study acknowledges the improvement in production efficiency afforded by modern intensive livestock operations. Through better feeding practices, recycling of nutrients in manure, better husbandry and health management, there is a potential to reduce global livestock emissions by up to 30% .

One example of these efficiencies can be seen in the chart below regarding milk production comparisons between countries (Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Dairy Sector, FAO 2010). Similar efficiencies can be shown in other livestock products.

The challenge is that the demand for livestock products is expected to grow by 70% between now and 2050 (Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock, 2013). A 30% decrease in emissions by changing practices is good but with a 70% increase in demand, the net result is increased emissions.

Understanding that government regulation of diet might be a bad idea, the authors suggested a need for a broader awareness of the role of animal agriculture’s contribution to GHG emissions. Just as the public is aware of the importance of transportation efficiency or home energy efficiency as a means to reduce carbon emissions they should be equally aware of the importance and effectiveness of dietary choices.

I would contend that most of us do not know much at all about our personal carbon footprint. (For those that are not concerned about the human contribution to climate change this can be understood.)

I would venture to guess that for most people, the table below is meaningless. Not because we can’t see a reduction of 1 t CO2e /year when going from a standard meat diet to a vegan diet but the significance of that change for our total carbon footprint. Is that a 2%, 10% or 20% change in our total? Is 1 t CO2/year more or less than a single flight to Europe?

I have three thoughts after reading the report.

  • The US animal agriculture industry must be recognized for the gains in production efficiency and continue to make improvements.
  • Animal agriculture must become more efficient globally.
  • This issue of animals and diet related to climate change is not going away despite our personal beliefs. As such, we must all become more knowledgeable regarding the contribution of livestock products to global, US, and personal carbon footprints.

Always Considering Climate — David

David Schmidt MS. PE is a researcher and educator in the Department of Bioproducts and Bioysystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota and regional project coordinator for the project Animal Agriculture in a Changing Climate, a national project of the Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Center and funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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