The climate impact of pets

A new book estimates that the climate change impact of pets is considerable:

In a study published in New Scientist, they calculated a medium dog eats 164 kilograms of meat and 95kg of cereals every year. It takes 43.3 square metres of land to produce 1kg of chicken a year. This means it takes 0.84 hectares to feed Fido.

They compared this with the footprint of a Toyota Land Cruiser, driven 10,000km a year, which uses 55.1 gigajoules (the energy used to build and fuel it). One hectare of land can produce 135 gigajoules a year, which means the vehicle’s eco-footprint is 0.41ha – less than half of the dog’s.

They found cats have an eco-footprint of 0.15ha – slightly less than a Volkswagen Golf. Hamsters have a footprint of 0.014ha – keeping two of them is equivalent to owning a plasma TV.

Just another thing that needs to be tallied up when considering one’s individual climate impact. It is also another reason to support carbon pricing, such as through an economy-wide carbon tax. Such a tax would make people consider the climatic impact of their pets more appropriately, and possibly consider smaller and/or vegetarian options.

All that being said, having a pet is a lot less carbon intensive than having a child. For those out there who are using dachshunds or tabbies as alternatives to procreation, carry right along.

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.

41 thoughts on “The climate impact of pets”

  1. Another victory in the environmentalists’ war to end all things that make life bearable.

  2. Another victory in the environmentalists’ war to end all things that make life bearable.

    What is the victory? No law has been passed banning pets. It’s just an observation that feeding a pet uses resources.

    Let’s say it was really fun to go around shooting people in the face. Then let’s say a group of people called “environmentalists” pointed out (accurately, mind you) that shooting people in the face was a large detriment to humanity in general. Is it still appropriate to deride environmentalists because they’re pointing out that, even though you personally enjoy it, maybe shooting people in the face isn’t the best thing?

  3. Environmentalists do not delight in the fact that many pleasant and popular activities are harmful. They just appreciate the fact that they are.

    The solution is to find less harmful ways of doing things, while probably also doing less of them. That’s one reason why I think falling populations are wonderful – they mean less onerous restrictions on everyone who is alive.

  4. I wonder how much actual meat or chicken goes into pet food. I think that dog food is a bit like the burgers in The Year of the Flood. Mind you, there are also some pets now who get organic chickens and greens and go to pet care so that they are not lonely and bored at home. One good thing to consider is that they keep their owners close to home and probably reduce their flying.

  5. I suspect Alena is right that pet food is largely comprised of the parts of the animal which Western consumers would refuse to eat.

    Given the massive variation in the size of dogs, this figure for a ‘medium dog’ seems somewhat unhelpful. What breeds of dog fit this specification, and how much does the resource consumption of dogs vary? I presume that how much a dog consumes depends on its weight, so this suggests that there is an upside (the only upside, in my view) to the surge in popularity of tiny little rat dogs, provided that they are displacing larger dogs.

  6. Even if humans would not otherwise eat the meat, the fact that there is a market for it makes factory farming more profitable. Even if there is a fallback use, other than pet food, the fact that it is used for pet food now suggests that this is the most profitable option.

    One nice thing about the carbon pricing approach is that it eliminates much of the burden of identifying all the emissions associated with each product or activity. If we tax where fossil fuels are produced or imported (and at other places where GHGs are generated), activities farther along economic chains will still have that externality priced in.

  7. What breeds of dog fit this specification, and how much does the resource consumption of dogs vary?

    If someone wants to get hold of a copy of the book and examine the methodology, I would be grateful.

    If I come across a copy myself, I will take a look. The linked article does contain these examples:

    “German shepherds: 1.1 hectares, compared with 0.41ha for a large SUV.

    Cats: 0.15ha (slightly less than a Volkswagen Golf). Hamsters: 0.014ha (two of them equate to a medium-sized plasma TV).

    Goldfish: 0.00034ha (an eco-finprint equal to two cellphones).”

    It certainly makes cellphones seem fairly benign, by comparison.

  8. October 27, 2009
    Quality of Life – It’s Sharing Time

    Anyway, it got me thinking about my life. It’s a good one – I know that. I feel very lucky to be surrounded by so many good people. But how do I measure my life? How do I decide that I am doing well, and by what standards? Milan’s post reminded me how differently everyone weighs their successes and failures. When I think about it, many of the people I know use wildly different ways to measure out their lives.

  9. From Liz on Facebook:

    I think that the results of this study are very misleading. The pet food industry is mainly just a cushion for the meat industry – meat production animals are slaughtered in adolescence regardless of the market demand for meat at that particular moment – the animal dis-assembly line cannot react immediately to human consumer preferences. In the case of a surplus, excess meat is used in pet food production and in the manufacture of other low-grade non-perishable meat products.

    The pet food industry also uses the bodies of “spent” egg-production hens as well as other animal parts that are deemed unfit for human consumption.

    From this standpoint, putting aside questions of why humans feel justified in using animals in the first place, the pet food industry might actually be good for the environment – because it reduces “waste”…. Read More

    I don’t think we should be perpetuating any of this business: the pet industry, the meat industry, etc… but my two cents is this article uses poor logic and puts the blame on companion animals and their caregivers.

  10. As I said before, even if it is true that 100% of the meat in pet food would otherwise have been thrown away (which seems unlikely, given the scale at which pet food is made), the fact that this waste is getting a value makes the factory farming system as a whole more profitable.

    That being said, I would welcome a detailed methodological analysis of the original study.

  11. Because it occurs to me that if we – collectively – are evaluating cats vs dogs and big dogs vs little dogs in terms of their environmental harm, we are probably also evaluating various categories of humans too. And the most obvious distinction between humans is male versus female. My gut feeling is that men are more harmful to the environment than women, and I’m wondering if the math backs up my gut feeling.

  12. It would be hard to produce a sensible methodology for evaluating that. After all, many human emissions don’t occur for the benefit of any single identifiable individual.

    Still, if you tallied up things like food and electricity consumption, it seems plausible that you would find more of it going to men. That is because they have higher per-capita incomes both in developed states and (often much more skewed) in the developing world.

  13. I cooked up a basic graph of the bind we are in, given today’s technologies. If we set up the right incentives, it should eventually be possible to do a lot more personally enjoyable things in an environmentally acceptable way. For now, those who really want to avoid causing harm to defenceless members of future generations have few alternatives to the hair shirt approach.

    Note: The examples in the graph correspond to one set of preferences. Obviously, the rankings will vary depending on the person. Someone who lives to motorcycle, for instance, might list being able to do so towards the top-right of this chart.

  14. Interesting. I have never considered the environmental impact of pets. Though, I think if I had a dog again he or she would be getting vegetarian food options. Because there’s no point in being a human vegetarian if you support your dog’s meat eating.

    I think your chart is quite good, but is it possible that we are focusing on the losses and not enough on what we do have within bussing/cycling distance?

    Sure, we can’t fly to Asia – but why torture ourselves over it? We are in the fortunate position of living in a country with a lot of diversity both naturally and city-wise.

    Cycling to the East Coast might be more beautiful, and more personally fulfilling than flying to Indonesia.

    We just lose things that people tend to value overall. A little imagination and energy can make most seemingly boring scenarios into something wonderful.

    Flying, eating meat, etc. don’t make people any happier overall. They are just culturally appreciated, and tend to be valued over other less obvious options.

  15. I certainly agree that not all sacrifices are as bad as people expect them to be. Still, I do think it is regrettable that climate change constrains the kinds of choices we can make in life, while still credibly claiming to be ethical. While vegetarianism makes ethical, economic, and ecological sense, I definitely miss that nice Vancouver tuna sashimi.

    Traveling almost everywhere was one of my life-long dreams. Now, it seems like it might be something that cannot be ethically done in my lifetime. It’s rough to think that I may never see Asia, most of Africa, Latin America, Oceania, etc. While there may be virtue in living a simple life, I don’t see any reason for which it is fundamentally virtuous to only see a small slice of the world.

    Still, you are right to say that focusing on the restrictions isn’t the wisest choice, psychologically. As unpleasant as it is to have not seen Vancouver in two years (and not seen you in more than six months), it makes sense to try and sniff out what’s interesting to do around here. The family reunion in Vermont should be pleasant, and rather low-carbon with three people sharing the car.

  16. I am also reminded of Margaret Atwood’s list of six ways to deal with crises: “Protect Yourself, Give Up and Party, Help Others, Blame, Bear Witness, and Go About Your Life.”

    When it comes to climate change, I think the healthiest option is ‘help others,’ though we also need a share of ‘protect yourself,’ ‘blame,’ ‘bear witness,’ and ‘go about your life.’

  17. George Monbiot’s proposed secondary currency (‘icecaps’ that are equivant to GHG emissions) would be an ideal way of letting people choose how they want to spend their just emissions allotment: whether it is on having a dog, having a car, or perhaps taking a flight every few years.

    “But in creating a carbon rationing system, you are, in effect, creating a new currency. The entitlement to pollute will be accounted, saved, spent and exchanged much as money is today. As fas as I can discover, no one has yet given it a name, except the rather dull ‘carbon units’. So for want of a better term, I will call the new currency icecaps, in the hope that the name will remind people what the system is for: it enables us to cap our climate emissions to keep the planet cool.

    The icecaps you are given can be traded with other people. If you reach the end of the year and find you haven’t used all your allocation, you can sell the remainder to someone else. Or if you’ve used too much, you can buy the extra icecaps you need. You can buy or sell the unused rations in your local post office or bank, or from electricity compaies, filling stations and travel agents. So can visitors to the countery, who will not be given any entitlements by the government. Of course, if everyone is trying to do the same thing, the price becomes very high indeed.

    What this means is that the lady in the Rolls-Royce car [or the one with the Saint Bernard. ed.] might still be driving around, but only after she has transferred a good deal of money to people who are poorer or more abstemious than she is. Economic justice is built into the system.”

    Unfortunately, while the idea is elegant in theory, it would be very politically challenging to implement.

  18. A second currency might be a more equitable approach than some other carbon pricing schemes. For instance, a scheme were permits are simply handed out to big polluters is patently unjust. Since dollars and icecaps would be freely exhanged for one another, this plan amounts to setting up a national cap-and-trade scheme with a hard cap, then giving a guaranteed minimum income to everybody. Given that wealth would presumably continue to rise – at the same time as the carbon cap kept getting cut – the relative size of that minimum income compared to the rest of the economy would presumably rise steadily.

    It would certainly be interesting to see what the distributional effects of all that would be within society. There would be a big transfer of wealth from the rich and middle class to the poor, but the recipients would be constrained in terms of buying carbon-intensive things.

  19. Details aside, a system that allows people to choose where their emissions will come from – while ensuring that overall emissions fall at a sufficiently rapid rate – does seem like the ideal policy mechanism for cutting emissions in a way that doesn’t unduly constrain the choices people make in living their lives.

  20. I cooked up a basic graph of the bind we are in, given today’s technologies.

    ‘[G]iven today’s technologies’ is a major caveat here.

    While there will probably always be some trade-off between quality of life and personal environmental impact, the precise quality of that trade-off will vary over time. Key determinants will include the degree to which societies have energy systems based on renewables, changes in population and affluance, and evolving tastes and preferences.

  21. damnit Fido.

    (I wonder what the carbon emission from this useless post would be? It must be something greater than zero. After all, not all electricity is produced carbon-neutrally.)

  22. Edward,

    I remembered researching the climate impact of web servers several years ago. In all probability, the majority of energy use associated with this site takes the form of the energy required to run the various computers people use to access it.

    If people are accessing my site instead of doing something else on their computers, there isn’t much of a net impact. If I am actually compelling en0ugh to make people give up non-online time, then the aggregate impact would be greater.

    That said, if this post ever makes one person think twice about getting a big dog, the carbon emissions associated with it will probably be more than negated. As such, it might be overly pessimistic to all it ‘useless.’

  23. “If I am actually compelling en0ugh to make people give up non-online time, then the aggregate impact would be greater.”

    I think if people read your blog rather than spend time offline, you are probably having a positive political impact.

    Concentrating on tiny violences is a good way of ignoring the big ones.


    “SHOULD owning a great dane make you as much of an eco-outcast as an SUV driver? Yes it should, say Robert and Brenda Vale, two architects who specialise in sustainable living at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. In their new book, Time to Eat the Dog: The real guide to sustainable living, they compare the ecological footprints of a menagerie of popular pets with those of various other lifestyle choices – and the critters do not fare well.”

  25. I’d like to know more about the claim “One hectare of land can produce 135 gigajoules a year “It takes 43.3 square metres of land to produce 1kg of chicken a year. ”

    A hectare of land can produce that much energy in what capacity? Liquid fuel that could drive the aforementioned Toyota Land Cruiser?

    In thinking about this issue more, I’m becoming a bit skeptical of it. Which isn’t to say that I don’t believe pets have an impact, just that I find it hard to believe a dog is more than a Land Cruiser. Also, we’re talking in units of energy, not in units of CO2… Does a dog, and the chickens that feed it, exhale more CO2 that an SUV?

  26. Does a dog, and the chickens that feed it, exhale more CO2 that an SUV?

    How much they exhale doesn’t really matter, since it was biomass before and presumably will be again soon. What matters is the fossil fuel inputs to agriculture: natural gas for fertilizer, oil for machinery, energy for refrigeration, etc.

    Not having to try and sort all this stuff out is one good argument in favour of a carbon tax imposed at the highest possible level (such as where hydrocarbons are produced and imported). From there, the costs would flow appropriately through the economy.

  27. How much they exhale doesn’t really matter, since it was biomass before and presumably will be again soon.

    I guess this is fair, because the amount they exhale will be taken out of the atmosphere in next years crop.

    Still, regarding how much energy could be produced by an amount of land, how is this figured out? Presumably to use the land to fuel a Land Cruiser, one would have to make biodiesel. In growing the feedstock for biodiesel, there would be a significant energy input, as well. How much land would be needed to produce fuel for the SUV, as well as for the farm machinery that farms the feedstock in the first place?

    If this isn’t the method they used to compare cats and cars, is it more hypothetical? For instance, is it something like “an equivalent of 55 gigajoules of sunlight (the energy it take to run a Land Cruiser) falls on 0.41ha of land a year,” disregarding the fact said vehicle doesn’t run on sunlight?

  28. If you want to go it by land area, the fairest comparison would probably be this:

    For the car, the amount of land it would take to grow enough biomass to produce the liquid fuel to run it.

    For the dog, the amount of land to grow the plants to feed to the animals that the dog eats.

    I am not sure if that is the methodology those running the study used. Both are effectively about sunlight, and energy return on investment when converting primary products (plants) into final fuels (meat or liquid fuel).

  29. In both cases, you would need to include land to produce fuels to run your conversion processes: for instance, facilities to make biodiesel or ethanol, as well as farms to make meat.

  30. The best way to test the relative climate impact of cars and dogs is to impose a carbon tax, wait for it to filter through the economy, and then see how much the prices of both change.

    It’s not a perfect method, since other things would be changing at the same time, but it still seems pretty good.

  31. In an ideal world, a carbon tax would reveal these things. As it stands, however, industrial agriculture seems to be one of the groups that will be most successful at convincing politicians to give them special exemptions, so they can keep emitting cheaply.

  32. Though, I think if I had a dog again he or she would be getting vegetarian food options.

    I’m not so sure this is fair to the dog; they are carnivorous animals, much more so than humans. From their teeth, to their digestive tract, to the fact they can even synthesis their own vitamin C (they don’t eat a lot of citrus naturally), they are designed for meat.

  33. It’s even worse for cats. Not only are they not natural vegetarians, they are obviously natural killing machines. They seem to take special delight in planning and executing ambushes, as well as toying with their prey afterwards.

    Living in Oxford, there used to be a hedgerow outside my window where cats hid. When birds landed on the lawn, they were swiftly overcome. Oddly, the presence of random feathers everywhere was never an adequare warning for them.

Leave a Reply

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