Jhere are just two actions needed to prevent catastrophic climate degradation: leave fossil fuels in the ground and stop farming animals. But, thanks to the power of the two industries, the two objectives are officially unavoidable. None of them have appeared in any of the declarations of the 26 climate summits concluded so far.
Surprisingly, the sectors themselves are rarely mentioned. I have worked on every final chord produced by the summits since they began. Fossil fuels are only named in six of them. Only one refers to consuming less overall: the others only propose improving efficiency (which, we have known since the 19th century, can often paradoxically increase the use of fossil fuels), attempt technical solutions or, in the case of last year’s agreement in Glasgow, phasing out ‘relentless’ coal burning, with nothing to say about cutting oil or gas. None of them suggest extracting less. If fossil fuels are taken out of the ground, they will be used, regardless of governments’ vague claims about consumption.
The other omission is even more glaring. Livestock is only mentioned in three agreements, and the only action each one proposes is “management”. Nowhere is there a word about discount. It is as if the nuclear non-proliferation negotiators had decided not to talk about bombs. You can’t address a problem if you don’t discuss it.
The call to stop raising animals should be as familiar as the call to leave fossil fuels in the ground. But we rarely hear it. Livestock, a recent article in the journal Sustainability Estimates, accounts for between 16.5% and 28% of all greenhouse gas pollution. The range of these figures shows how much this issue has been overlooked. As the same article shows, the official figure (14.5%), published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is clearly wrong. Everyone in the field knows it, but few attempts have been made to update it.
Even if the minimum number (16.5%) applies, this is more than all global transport emissions. And it’s growing fast. In the 20 years to 2018, global meat consumption increased by 58%. An article in Climate Policy estimates that, by 2030, greenhouse gases from livestock could use half of the global carbon budget, if we are to avoid more than 1.5C of global warming.
Analysis by Our World in Data shows that even if greenhouse gas pollution from all other sectors were eliminated today, by 2100 food production, on its current trajectory, will blow the carbon budget world two or three times. This is largely due to livestock, which accounts for 57% of the food system’s greenhouse gases, despite providing only 18% of the calories.
This problem has become even more urgent now that we know that the impact of methane on heating is increasing. Livestock is the world’s leading source of methane emitted by human activities. Yet there is no mention of it in the global methane pledge launched at last year’s climate summit.
Governments have not ignored these issues by accident; they resolutely looked away. A new analysis for Chatham House reveals that only 12 countries mention emissions from farm animals in their official climate commitments, and none seek to reduce animal production. Only two countries (Costa Rica and Ethiopia) mention dietary change: arguably the most important of all environmental actions, as livestock farming is also the biggest cause of habitat destruction and wildlife loss in the world.
What explains this determined silence? I think there are several reasons. The cultural power of the livestock sector far outweighs its economic power. Our connection to food is more personal than our connection to sources of energy. Most fossil fuels are consumed remotely. When we use electricity, for example, we don’t think where it comes from, as long as the lights stay on. But we think and feel a lot about the food we eat. And, compared to the denial sponsored by the fossil fuel industry, the deceptive claims of the livestock industry have barely been challenged in the media.
A scandal erupted last week over an academic center at the University of California, Davis, which appears to have been founded and funded by livestock lobby groups. He downplayed the impact of animal husbandry, in a way that other scientists have called highly misleading.
But this is only one aspect of the problem. Like the fossil fuel industry, ranching companies have invested money in public persuasion, using tactics originally developed by tobacco companies. Some of this greenwashing has been very effective, particularly industry claims about “regenerative farming” and the false claim that pasture-fed meat farming sequesters more greenhouse gases than it don’t release it.
In fact, grass-fed meat is by far the most damaging element of our diet, due to its enormous land requirement, greenhouse gas emissions, and carbon and opportunity opportunity costs. ecological. Despite a plethora of claims, there is no empirical evidence that carbon storage in pastures can offset the greenhouse gases produced by livestock, let alone the carbon stocks destroyed when wild ecosystems are converted to pastures. .
An article in Nature Sustainability found that if permanent livestock pastures in wealthy countries alone were returned to wild ecosystems, their restoration would remove 380 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, equivalent to 12 years of global carbon emissions. The UK government’s Climate Change Committee reports that in England, “the transition from grassland to forest would increase soil carbon stock by 25 tonnes of carbon per hectare… This is on top of the large amounts of carbon that would be stored in the biomass of the trees themselves.
Slowly and painfully we became energetic. A lot of people have started “doing the math” on fossil fuel emissions. Now we have to become food numerators. An extraordinary feature of this debate is that when you present data, your opponents respond with images, usually bucolic images of cows or sheep.
Popular food writing is dominated by a disastrous combination of aesthetics and elite tastes. Famous authors propose that everyone eats the food they like, promoting diets that couldn’t be scaled unless you had multiple planets and no space on any of them for wild ecosystems. They push us to use a Neolithic production system (grazing) to feed a 21st century population, with catastrophic results.
We urgently need to put these insane things aside, follow and understand the science, and pressure our governments to focus on the root causes of the climate crisis. They had two jobs and have so far not mentioned either of them.