Meat, methane, and global warming

Apparently, there is quite a substantial connection between the global meat industry and global warming. A report from the Food and Agriculture Organization concludes that the livestock industry generates 18% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The figure includes feed production, the raising of animals themselves, as well as the transport and refrigeration of meat. Collectively, that is a larger share than all transport: cars, planes, etc. That quantity is both highly significant, and disproportionate to how livestock represents only 1.5% of global GDP. The report also describes the contribution of the meat industry to land degradation, water scarcity, and diminishing biodiversity. A summary of the report is also available.

Largely because of farming animals for meat, global concentrations of methane have more than doubled since the pre-industrial period. While those concentrations are still much lower than those of carbon dioxide, methane has 21 times more effect per unit volume. This seems unlikely to slow down any time soon, since global meat consumption has increased five-fold since 1950, and the rising GDP of many populous countries seems destined to perpetuate that trend.

Perhaps public figures hoping to show that they are serious about global warming should embrace vegetarianism or veganism instead of hybrid cars. While it is good that Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating has been changed to list “Meat and Alternatives” as one of the four food groups, perhaps they should be more aggressively promoting a meat-free lifestyle; it is almost certainly healthier, and makes ethical and environmental sense as well.

This sort of reading often makes me feel that I should take the full leap to becoming vegan. That said, almost all the best things I eat involve milk or eggs. Giving up beef and tuna (with rare sashimi exceptions) was difficult enough. Giving up cheese is practically unthinkable.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

20 thoughts on “Meat, methane, and global warming”

  1. One way or another, it is the methane that is going to get us:

    Methane in the Arctic and its Role in Global Climate Change

    In a warming climate, carbon and methane trapped in permafrost have a high potential for release into the atmosphere through chemical and biological processes such as thawing. When permafrost thaws and higher levels of CO2 and CH4 are released, atmospheric temperature also increases. This can result in a feedback loop and more permafrost thaw.

    Methane fever

    “At the end of an epoch of time known as the Paleocene, temperatures in the deep ocean soared by about six degrees Celsius. This worldwide heat wave killed off a plethora of microscopic deep-sea creatures and produced a bizarre spike in the record of carbon isotopes. Five years ago paleoceanographer Gerald (“Jerry”) Dickens of James Cook University in Australia proposed that a belch of seafloor methane-a greenhouse gas with almost 30 times the heattrapping ability of carbon dioxide-caused the shock.”

  2. Oh, and this study is also interesting. It discusses why vegetarianism is healthier. Also, that fish production is apparently as carbon intensive per calorie as meat.

  3. The fact that the meat industry produces a disproportionately high amount of greenhouse gases is not an argument for no-exeption vegetarien diets. Rather, it imposes the demand to make one’s meat – eating incompatible with the meat industry as it exists. However, the simple move to eating organic is not enough. Probably, one needs to buy meat only when you know where the meat is from, and how it is produced. It’s my impression that cattle which graze on large ranches, ignored by their owners for most of the year, are a fairly sustainable form of meat production. Furthermore, since the number of animals that can be supported in this manner is minimal, it would mean an order of magnitude rise in beef prices and less consumption overall.

    However, the market can never produce this solution on its own, and probably not even with regulation, because as the price for meat went up, the incentive to cheat the regulations and keep more cattle than is sustainable would rise proportionatly.

  4. Tristan,

    I agree that absolute vegetarianism is not a moral requirement. That said, I don’t think there is much meat out there that meets your requirements.

    The best solution to the GHG aspect of the problem – in the long term – is probably a system of individual carbon allowances that you can spend on driving, steak, or airline travel according to your preferences.

  5. grass-fed beef is definitely better than most kinds of meat, but it still contributes a lot to global warming because cows are methane-producing machines. the less beef we eat, the better from a climate change perspective.

    regardless, i think there’s a strong moral argument to be made that we do not have the right to kill animals.

  6. “Soybeans themselves are a highly efficient source of protein: According to one recent study, it takes about 0.2 calories of fossil fuels to make a calorie of soybean protein, a little more than one-thirtieth of the total for chicken. Soy is also much better from a global-warming perspective: In conventional production, a kilogram of raw beans generates about 150 grams to 300 grams of carbon-dioxide equivalent, as opposed to 2,500 grams for the equivalent quantity of edible chicken meat. (Organic soybeans should produce even less CO2 equivalent. [PDF])

    Soybeans are soaked in large tanks and ground into a slurry that then gets heated, filtered, and coagulated into slabs before being chopped up, packaged, and pasteurized. All of these steps require energy—and they dramatically increase tofu’s carbon footprint.

    Your potential savings will depend on what you’re swapping out in the first place. If every dinner you serve contains beef or air-freighted fish, then switching to tofu every once in a while will make a real difference. If you eat mostly chicken, your savings would be less impressive. Of course, there’s a greener way to get your veggie protein fix: Locally grown edamame, anyone?”

  7. UN body to look at meat and climate link
    By Richard Black
    Environment correspondent, BBC News

    UN specialists are to look again at the contribution of meat production to climate change, after claims that an earlier report exaggerated the link.

    A 2006 report concluded meat production was responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions – more than transport.

    The report has been cited by people campaigning for a more vegetable-based diet, including Sir Paul McCartney.

    But a new analysis, presented at a major US science meeting, says the transport comparison was flawed.

    Sir Paul was one of the figures launching a campaign late last year centred on the slogan “Less meat = less heat”.

    But curbing meat production and consumption would be less beneficial for the climate than has been claimed, said Frank Mitloehner from the University of California at Davis (UCD).

    “Smarter animal farming, not less farming, will equal less heat,” he told delegates to the American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting in San Francisco.

    “Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries.”

    Leading figures in the climate change establishment, such as Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chairman Rajendra Pachauri and Lord (Nicholas) Stern, have also quoted the 18% figure as a reason why people should consider eating less meat.

  8. Chickens and pigs convert grain into meat at rates of two or three to one (ie, it takes 2kg of feed to produce 1kg of chicken). The ratio for lamb is between four and over six to one and that for beef starts at five to one and goes as high as 20 to one. This has long been known. What is new are the amounts of greenhouse gases associated with the production of a kilo of protein by different animals. These vary even more widely: 3.7kg for chicken; 24kg for pork; and up to 1,000kg for cattle. The lower, more efficient ratios for chicken and pigs come about because they are kept in hated factory farms. Factory farming is good for the planet, if not for the animals.

  9. BETWEEN now and 2050 the planet’s population is expected to rise by a third, from 7.6bn to 9.8bn. Those extra mouths will need feeding, and not just with staples. As people grow richer, their demand for protein rises, particularly for meat and fish. Beef consumption in Asia, for example, is expected to jump by 44% over the next decade alone.

    Raising animals to be eaten already has huge effects on the world’s environment. The number of farm animals soared during the 20th century. More than 20bn chickens, 1.5bn cattle and 1bn sheep are alive today. A quarter of the world’s land is used for grazing them. They consume 30% of the world’s crops. They guzzle water—you need about 15,000 litres of the stuff to produce a kilo of beef, compared with only 1,500 litres for a kilo of maize or wheat. And their eructations do nothing for the climate. Livestock are responsible for 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *