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CO2 Emissions and Meat

This is an edited exert from my MA thesis.

Can we honestly say we care about climate change whilst continuing to eat meat?

I will start by making some preliminary remarks regarding climate change and global warming.  The extent of climate change cannot be understated; it impacts all life across the globe.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s three major messages regarding climate change are that: it is unequivocal, it is certain that humans have an influence, and the more greenhouse gas emissions released by humans, the worse the situation becomes, and the longer the issues go on for.  It is widely considered that a rise in global average temperature of roughly two degrees centigrade would bring about catastrophic changes.  In order to stop this temperature increase, there is a ‘carbon budget’ of 565 GT (gigatonnes or billion tonnes) for the planet.  Over 400 GT of this budget have already been released.  The remaining 150 gigatonnes, or so, in the carbon budget will be understood as a resource.  In turn, egalitarians should be concerned with the distribution of this resource, preferring it be distributed more equally than unequally.

In 2006, a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations found that the animal agriculture industry was responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions.  More recently, a World Watch report concluded that animal agriculture was responsible for 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions.  A third independent study conducted by Paul Mahony, concluded that animal agriculture was responsible for 43% of all greenhouse emissions.  The reasons why more recent figures are considerably higher are because of two necessary changes in methodology.  First, the more recent reports shortened the time frame of impact from 100 years, as used by the FAO, to 20 years.  It is important to reduce the time frame because this better incorporates the effects of methane, which is 25 to 100 times more destructive than CO2.  However, “methane breaks down in the atmosphere relatively quickly, with little remaining after 20 years”.  Thus, using a 100-year time frame underestimates the short-term impact of methane, which is a mistake if we want to avoid the disastrous effects of climate change.  This shortened time frame better gages the impacts of animal agriculture, which releases vast amounts of methane.  The world’s cows release 150 billion gallons of methane per day.  Secondly, recent studies include livestock respiration, which the FAO’s report ignored.  When the global carbon cycle is in natural balance, roughly the same amount of carbon is sequestered via photosynthesis by terrestrial plants, as is returned to the atmosphere by respiration.  Thus respiration would not need to be included if the carbon cycle was in natural balance.  However, there are 60 billion land animals raised for food each year.  This vast increase in the quantity of animals is correlated to the decrease in rainforests.  The natural carbon cycle has been altered.  Ignoring respiration, as the FAO did, is a grave mistake, which underestimates the full effects of the kgCO2e released by the animal agriculture sector.

We can estimate that animal agriculture is responsible for between 43% and 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions.  Thus, ceteris paribus, we would expect that those whom consume meat have a higher carbon footprint.  A typical diet with meat produces between 5.63 and 7.19 kgCO2e per day, whilst a vegetarian diet produces roughly 3.81 kgCO2e per day.  Approximately, a meat-eater’s diet produces double what a vegan’s diet pollutes.  The major polluter in a meat-eater’s diet is beef.  “A study in the UK found that emissions from beef amount to 16 kg CO2-eq/kg beef compared to 0.8 kg CO2-eq/kg of wheat”.  Although our diet is not responsible for the entirety of our carbon footprint, numerous studies have shown that dietary changes are imperative if we are to hit the 2°C target with high probability.  Shockingly, some researchers believe that, even without ever using fossil fuels again from this day forward, we will exceed our 565 gigatonnes CO2e limit by 2030, all from raising animals for food.

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By Ian Harper

If you're an egalitarian, how come you eat meat?