February 20, 2007
Livestock Do More Global Warming Than Transportation

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

Robert Schwartz said at February 21, 2007 8:20 AM:

Not until you pry my Cheeseburger from my cold dead fingers.

Marvin Meyer said at February 23, 2007 8:26 PM:

Neil Reynolds at the Globe and Mail just did an interesting article called "As China spews pell-mell why bother with Kyoto?"

Highly worth the read with three sentences worth mentioning here- "Canada produces 160 million tonnes a yr of the worlds 8B tonnes of Co2 emissions. Were Canada to eliminate all if its GHG emissions, China's increases would replace them in 18mnths. Were Canada to eliminate just 10% China's increases would replace them in 60 days." This statement was by Ruth Greenspan Bell, of the EPA who held various management positions there for over 20yrs, she is now a resident scholar with Resources for the Future- Washington think tank.

Now the greedy stakeholders of the NA markets are to blame because it is us who are demanding profits and forcing them to seek out cheap labour in china. I still strongly believe we need to stop buying anything made in China, just to let them breath! De-globalise I call it. This is the current talk in meetings back in January - Matthew Simmons
We can talk a whole lot more on the subject matter of this 4 minute video.

Its difficult but I do practice this.
Needless to say, I don't think the cows should be top priority.


TJIT said at February 24, 2007 3:08 PM:

Western ag subsidies and biofuel mandates cause massive market distortion that leads to massive environmental destruction. They are the biggest driver of rain forests destruction, not meat consumption. If you want to help the environment you should focus your efforts on ending these subsidies and mandates,not changing your diet.

In Indonesia, rainforest loss for oil palms has contributed to the endangerment of 140 species of land animals, while in Malaysia animals like the Sumatran tiger and Bornean orangutan have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Fish kills have become common in waterways surrounding plantations and palm-oil mills, as soil erosion from the cleared land and mill effluents have left waterways clogged with sediment and unviable.

Randall Parker said at February 24, 2007 5:04 PM:


I agree that palm oil production is wrecking rainforests. See my post Palm Oil For Biomass Energy Wrecking Rainforests.

But agricultural subsidies are not driving all the rainforest losses. Rising demand for Brazilian beef from industrializing Asian countries is an incentive for illegal logging and spread of cattle into rainforest areas. Demand for food really is causing the loss of rainforests just as biomass energy demand is doing.

James C said at April 30, 2009 1:31 PM:

To suggest the natural digestion process of animals is harmful to the planet,yet somehow, the digestion process of billions of human beings on a particularly flatulent diet of bean products is environmentally benign, is one of the most ridiculous ideas to come along in a long time. The animal rights movement is disappointed with the number of people who give up meat for emotional reasons, and they are happy to use this deception as a backdoor way to further their agenda. The UN is constituted mainly of third world countries that cant compete with the agricultural production of the west, and so they see this as a way to limit the west's agricultural capacity. This false theory will collapse under the scrutiny of rationality and logic

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