The impact of animal agriculture on climate change

Climate change is a massive threat to food security, water availability, and biodiversity worldwide, as well as a major cause of environmental disasters. The production and consumption of animal products is a major driver of climate change, whereas adopting a plant-based diet helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. ProVeg raises awareness of the connection between our diets and climate change.

What is climate change?

Since the dawn of industrialisation, the average global temperature has been gradually increasing. A great deal of research has shown that this increase is due to human activities and that climate change is rapidly transforming the world we live in. It is already affecting the environment, economy, and society in a variety of ways, and will increasingly influence our daily lives as well. While climate change is marked by long-term incremental changes such as slowly rising temperatures and sea levels, it will also result in a greater number of extreme weather events such as storms, floods, and exceptionally hot summers. These will impact negatively on agriculture, general productivity, and human health. Additionally, climate change results in increased incidences of heat waves that are especially dangerous for children and elderly people.

 

The role of animal agriculture in climate change

Meat, dairy, and egg production are among the leading causes of human-caused climate change, soil erosion, water pollution, and the decrease in biodiversity. According to the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations), farmed animals are responsible for 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture also accounts for at least half of all food-related greenhouse gas emissions.1)Vermeulen, S. J. et al. (2012): Climate Change and Food Systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 37, p.195–222 2)Herrero, M., B. Henderson, P. Havlík, et al. (2016): Greenhouse gas mitigation potentials in the livestock sector. Nature Clim. Change. 6, p.452–461 In total, the global food system contributes about 30% of all human-made emissions.3)Vermeulen, S. J. et al. (2012): Climate Change and Food Systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 37, p.195–222 4)Bajželj, B., J. M. Allwood & J. M. Cullen (2013): Designing Climate Change Mitigation Plans That Add Up. Environ Sci Technol. 47, p.8062–8069 Worldwide, the top 20 meat and dairy corporations produce more greenhouse gas emissions than the whole of Germany.5)Heinrich Böll Stiftung, GRAIN & Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (2017): Big Meat and Dairy’s supersized Climate Footprint. Available at https://www.grain.org/article/entries/5825-big-meat-and-dairy-s-supersized-climate-footprint [03.03.2018]

 

Direct emissions: methane and nitrous oxide from animal husbandry

While carbon dioxide is the most notorious greenhouse gas, responsible for about 27% of animal agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions,6)Gerber, P. et al. (2013): Tackling climate change through livestock: a global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. FAO, Rome. p. 15 methane is potentially 28 times more harmful than carbon dioxide in terms of its global warming potential, while nitrous oxide is 265 times as potent.7)Myhre, G., D. Shindell, F.-M. Bréon, et al. (2013): Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. The greatest source of the former is cattle, who, like all ruminants (cows, sheep, and goats), produce methane during their digestive process. This gas is responsible for about 44% of animal agriculture’s total greenhouse gas emissions.8)Gerber, P. et al. (2013): Tackling climate change through livestock: a global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. FAO, Rome. p.15 Nitrous oxide, on the other hand, is released when animal manure is used as fertiliser, composted, or otherwise processed. It is especially problematic if more nitrogen is used than the vegetation can absorb. About 29% of the meat industry’s emissions are in the form of nitrous oxide.9)Gerber, P. et al. (2013): Tackling climate change through livestock: a global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. FAO, Rome. p. 15 The immense scale of beef and dairy production means that cattle farming contributes the biggest share of the meat industry’s total greenhouse gas emissions, at 65%.10)Gerber, P. et al. (2013): Tackling climate change through livestock: a global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. FAO, Rome. p. 15 Emission levels continue to rise due to ever-intensifying meat and dairy production.

Indirect emissions: Land use changes promote climate change

Besides being a huge source of emissions, animal agriculture further exacerbates climate change as vast areas of forests, grasslands, and wetlands are cleared to provide land for grazing and to grow animal feed crops. Forests and other wildlands mitigate climate change by acting as massive carbon sinks, in which carbon is absorbed from the atmosphere and sequestered underground.

 

Deforestation has serious consequences for the environment

Often referred to as ‘the lungs of the earth’, the Amazon rainforest is critical to regulating the world’s climate and weather cycles. Yet a staggering 20% has already been destroyed, and an equally large area is facing the same threat.11)BBC (2005): Amazon destruction accelerating. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4561189.stm [03.03.2018] If the destruction of the Amazon rainforest continues unchecked, we will reach a point of no return, which could lead to the complete collapse of the Amazonian ecosystem, with grave repercussions for global climate.12)Saatchi, S., S. Asefi-Najafabady, Y. Malhi,et al (2013): Persistent Effects of a Severe Drought on Amazonian Forest Canopy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, no. 2 (January 8, 2013): 565–570.

Forests, wetlands, and grasslands fulfil vital functions for local climates and water supplies. Their destruction and conversion to farmland are among the largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions.13)IPCC (2007): Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R.K and Reisinger, A. (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland Furthermore, the resulting habitat destruction endangers plant and animal wildlife, compounding the pressure on biodiversity and ecosystems.

Thus, animal agriculture has a doubly damaging effect on climate: not only does it produce huge amounts of harmful greenhouse gas emissions, it also destroys Earth’s natural defence systems.

 

Loss of fertile land diminishes harvests

Additionally, fertile topsoils such as humus and peat, which are rich in organic matter, are at risk of erosion due to deforestation, wetland drainage, and unsustainable land management. These priceless natural resources cannot be restored within our lifetime. Agricultural machinery, over-fertilisation, toxins, and monocultures deplete and loosen the soil, which is then carried away by wind and rain. Poor soil leads to weak harvests, which in turn necessitate the cultivation of ever-expanding areas of farmland. The earth’s soils also act as huge carbon sinks and contain more carbon than the entire atmosphere or all of the planet’s vegetation.14)Gobin, A., P. Campling et al. (2011): Soil organic matter management across the EU – best practices, constraints and trade-offs, Final Report for the European Commission’s DG Environment, September 2011. 15)Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, and Bund für Umwelt- und Naturschutz Deutschland (2015): Bodenatlas 2015: Daten und Fakten über Acker, Land und Erde. The destruction of topsoils further compounds the problem of global warming.

 

Our food choices determine our carbon footprint

Rising incomes and urbanisation across developing countries are driving an increase in meat consumption. These changing demographics are bringing about a global food transition in which less-processed, highly plant-based traditional diets are being replaced by diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, and animal products. If the consumption of meat and other animal products increases at current rates, global greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture will rise by nearly 80% by 2050,16)Popp, A. et al. (2010): Food consumption, diet shifts and associated non-CO2 greenhouse gases from agricultural production. Global Environmental Change 20, p.451–462 17)Tilman, D. & M. Clark (2014): Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature 515, p.518–522 18)Springmann, M. et al. (2016): Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. PNAS 113, p.4146–4151 making the targets set in the Paris Climate Agreement unrealistic. Therefore, reducing animal consumption is a crucial step towards meeting the 2°C target.19)Brent Kim et al. (2015): The Importance of Reducing Animal Product Consumption and Wasted Food in Mitigating Catastrophic Climate Change. John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future 20)Hedenus, F., S. Wirsenius & D. J. A. Johansson (2014): The importance of reduced meat and dairy consumption for meeting stringent climate change targets. Climatic Change. 124, p.79–91

Even though consumption of animal products plays a major role in climate change, there is little public awareness of the link between diet and climate change. Recognising the climate impact of different foods is a crucial first step in making climate-friendly food choices.

 

A plant-based diet is climate-friendly

There is consistent evidence that diets high in plant-based foods and lower in animal products are less damaging to the climate. Consider, for example, that producing 1 kg of beef releases between 16 kg and 30 kg of carbon dioxide into the environment,21)Lesschen, J P., M. van der Berg et al. (2011): Greenhouse gas emission profiles of European livestock sectors. Animal Feed Science and Technology, pp. 166-167 and pp. 16-28. 22)Garnett, T. (2009): Livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions: Impacts and options for policy makers. Environmental Science and Policy 12, pp. 491–504. 23)Carlsson-Kanyama, A., & A. D. González (2009): Potential contributions of food consumption patterns to climate change. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2009; 89 (suppl), pp. 1704S-9S. 24)Reinhardt, G., S. Gärtner, Münch, J. & S. Häfele (2009): Ökologische Optimierung regional erzeugter Lebensmittel: Energie- und Klimabilanzen, Heidelberg: IFEU. 25)Venkat, K. (2012): The climate change and economic impacts of food waste in the United States, Portland, OR: CleanMetrics Corp. while producing 1 kg of tofu releases only 1 kg of carbon dioxide.26)Mejia, A. et al. (2017): Greenhouse Gas Emissions Generated by Tofu Production: A Case Study. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition Replacing beef with beans would free up 42% of US farmland, achieve 75% of the US’s 2020 climate goal, and provide more than sufficient dietary protein.27)Harwatt, H. et al. (2017): Substituting beans for beef as a contribution toward U.S. climate change targets. Climatic Change doi:10.1007/s10584-017-1969-1 Studies suggest that personal food-related carbon footprints could be halved with the adoption of a plant-based diet,28)Wissenschaftlicher Beirat für Agrarpolitik, Ernährung und gesundheitlichen Verbraucherschutz & Wissenschaftlicher Beirat Waldpolitik beim BMEL (2016): Klimaschutz in der Land- und Forstwirtschaft sowie den nachgelagerten Bereichen Ernährung und Holzverwendung. 29)Scarborough, P. et al. (2014): Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Climatic Change 125, p.179–192 and that if everyone adopted a vegan diet, worldwide food-related greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by up to 70% by 2050.30)Scarborough, P. et al. (2014): Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Climatic Change 125, p.179–192 Given that, calorie for calorie, meat, dairy, and other animal-based foods create more greenhouse gases and require significantly more land and other resources than plant-based foods, it is easy to conclude that, besides its many other benefits, a plant-based diet is one of the simplest and most effective ways that each one of us can make a positive impact on climate change.

 

ProVeg helps reduce greenhouse gases

ProVeg raises awareness about the climate impact of our food choices by communicating with political decision-makers and civil society organisations. Politicians need to introduce and prioritise food consumption and production, particularly animal agriculture, on both the global climate protection agenda and in national implementation plans. In order to have our voice heard, we team up with others, for example, the German Climate Alliance, a  network of over 100 organisations. Additionally, ProVeg actively negotiates and contributes to national climate change policies through public participation processes.

 

ProVeg participates in the World Climate Change Conference (COP)

At COP23 in Bonn, Germany, ProVeg handed over a petition to German State Secretary Jochen Flasbarth, calling for animal agriculture to be put on the agenda. ProVeg also hosted a successful side event with leading scientists, including Marco Springmann from Oxford University and Alon Shepon from the Weizmann Institute of Science.

2018 will be an important climate policy year in which ProVeg will continue to work intensively on the topic and pursue political dialogue in a targeted manner. In Germany, the first package of measures to shape the German climate protection plan, including concrete instruments, is being negotiated. At the international level, the year begins with the so-called Intersessional Conference, during which guidelines and concrete points will be negotiated and prepared for the next Climate Change Conference in Katowice (Poland) (COP24).

References   [ + ]

1, 3. Vermeulen, S. J. et al. (2012): Climate Change and Food Systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 37, p.195–222
2. Herrero, M., B. Henderson, P. Havlík, et al. (2016): Greenhouse gas mitigation potentials in the livestock sector. Nature Clim. Change. 6, p.452–461
4. Bajželj, B., J. M. Allwood & J. M. Cullen (2013): Designing Climate Change Mitigation Plans That Add Up. Environ Sci Technol. 47, p.8062–8069
5. Heinrich Böll Stiftung, GRAIN & Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (2017): Big Meat and Dairy’s supersized Climate Footprint. Available at https://www.grain.org/article/entries/5825-big-meat-and-dairy-s-supersized-climate-footprint [03.03.2018]
6, 9, 10. Gerber, P. et al. (2013): Tackling climate change through livestock: a global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. FAO, Rome. p. 15
7. Myhre, G., D. Shindell, F.-M. Bréon, et al. (2013): Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
8. Gerber, P. et al. (2013): Tackling climate change through livestock: a global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. FAO, Rome. p.15
11. BBC (2005): Amazon destruction accelerating. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4561189.stm [03.03.2018]
12. Saatchi, S., S. Asefi-Najafabady, Y. Malhi,et al (2013): Persistent Effects of a Severe Drought on Amazonian Forest Canopy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, no. 2 (January 8, 2013): 565–570.
13. IPCC (2007): Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R.K and Reisinger, A. (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland
14. Gobin, A., P. Campling et al. (2011): Soil organic matter management across the EU – best practices, constraints and trade-offs, Final Report for the European Commission’s DG Environment, September 2011.
15. Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, and Bund für Umwelt- und Naturschutz Deutschland (2015): Bodenatlas 2015: Daten und Fakten über Acker, Land und Erde.
16. Popp, A. et al. (2010): Food consumption, diet shifts and associated non-CO2 greenhouse gases from agricultural production. Global Environmental Change 20, p.451–462
17. Tilman, D. & M. Clark (2014): Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature 515, p.518–522
18. Springmann, M. et al. (2016): Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. PNAS 113, p.4146–4151
19. Brent Kim et al. (2015): The Importance of Reducing Animal Product Consumption and Wasted Food in Mitigating Catastrophic Climate Change. John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future
20. Hedenus, F., S. Wirsenius & D. J. A. Johansson (2014): The importance of reduced meat and dairy consumption for meeting stringent climate change targets. Climatic Change. 124, p.79–91
21. Lesschen, J P., M. van der Berg et al. (2011): Greenhouse gas emission profiles of European livestock sectors. Animal Feed Science and Technology, pp. 166-167 and pp. 16-28.
22. Garnett, T. (2009): Livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions: Impacts and options for policy makers. Environmental Science and Policy 12, pp. 491–504.
23. Carlsson-Kanyama, A., & A. D. González (2009): Potential contributions of food consumption patterns to climate change. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2009; 89 (suppl), pp. 1704S-9S.
24. Reinhardt, G., S. Gärtner, Münch, J. & S. Häfele (2009): Ökologische Optimierung regional erzeugter Lebensmittel: Energie- und Klimabilanzen, Heidelberg: IFEU.
25. Venkat, K. (2012): The climate change and economic impacts of food waste in the United States, Portland, OR: CleanMetrics Corp.
26. Mejia, A. et al. (2017): Greenhouse Gas Emissions Generated by Tofu Production: A Case Study. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition
27. Harwatt, H. et al. (2017): Substituting beans for beef as a contribution toward U.S. climate change targets. Climatic Change doi:10.1007/s10584-017-1969-1
28. Wissenschaftlicher Beirat für Agrarpolitik, Ernährung und gesundheitlichen Verbraucherschutz & Wissenschaftlicher Beirat Waldpolitik beim BMEL (2016): Klimaschutz in der Land- und Forstwirtschaft sowie den nachgelagerten Bereichen Ernährung und Holzverwendung.
29, 30. Scarborough, P. et al. (2014): Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Climatic Change 125, p.179–192