Move aside much reviled SUVs. Time to blame environmental destruction on the cows and the people who eat them.
Livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, reports the FAO. This includes 9 percent of all CO2 emissions, 37 percent of methane, and 65 percent of nitrous oxide. Altogether, that's more than the emissions caused by transportation.
The latter two gases are particularly troubling – even though they represent far smaller concentrations in atmosphere than CO2, which remains the main global warming culprit. But methane has 23 times the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2 and nitrous oxide has 296 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.
Some of the methane could get captured from livestock that are in buildings. Also, the types of compounds found in grasses and other feeds affect how much methane gets generated. Feed genetically engineered for easier digestion would lower methane emissions.
Rising living standards in some developing countries are pushing up meat consumption.
Between 1970 and 2002, annual per capita meat consumption in developing countries rose from 11 kilograms (24 lbs.) to 29 kilograms (64 lbs.), according to the FAO. (In developed countries, the comparable figures were 65 kilos and 80 kilos.) As population increased, total meat consumption in the developing world grew nearly five-fold over that period.
Think about the land involved too. The more people demand meat the more grain will get planted. Brazil has 40% of the world's remaining rainforests. How much of those rainforests will get cut down to provide grazing areas and livestock grain crop areas to feed the growing ranks of hundreds of millions of affluent Asians?
Continued world economic development is going to push global meat consumption much higher.
Beyond that, annual global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tons at the beginning of the decade to 465 million tons in 2050.
My guess is this is an underestimate. Robots, nanotechnology, and other advances will spur much more global economic growth. Can these technologies also reduce the ecological footprint of livestock production?
The impact of China still seems underappreciated in projections I see about the future. China has over 4 times the population of the United States and its rapid economic growth is going to make it into a larger source of demand for most goods than the United States. I get the sense that we've become so accustomed to seeing the US as the biggest energy user, biggest user of raw materials, biggest consumer of meat, and top in so many other categories that China's emergence just doesn't seem real yet to most people. Get your mind around the idea that US consumption will rise but China's consumption will rise far more.
The rise of China to the top position is already starting to happen in many categories, For example, China's CO2 emissions may surpass those of the US as early as 2009. This poses two problems from an environmental perspective. First off, Chinese consumption and emissions come on top of US consumption and emissions. Second, the desire to reduce pollution increases as living standards rise. But since China has over 4 times as many people as the US the Chinese will feel less desire to reduce pollution and reduce ecological impact when they have the same total GDP. Why? At the same total GDP they'll have less than a 4th of per capita GDP and, since they've accumulated less stuff, even lower living standards than the per capita GDP difference suggests.
My concern is that a much larger fraction of the human race is going to become huge consumers of resources and huge generators of pollutants. We need to make huge technological strides to cut down the impacts of this development. I'm skeptical that we'll succeed. Affluent people will want bigger houses no larger tracts of manicured lawns. Plus, they'll want more livestock and wood. Habitat destruction in the tropics looks set to continue.
|Share |||Randall Parker, 2007 February 20 11:13 PM Pollution Policy|