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Climate change debates should not include cows and cars.
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Climate change debates should not include cows and cars.


There is much talk of the COP26 summit, where world leaders are gathered in Glasgow. methaneEmissions and belching cows. The Global Methane PledgeThe US and EU are leading the effort, along with many other countries signatories, to reduce methane emissions 30% by 2030. This is seen as a “quick win” to reduce global warming and will have major implications for livestock production.

Climate change has made livestock the enemy of the planet. Some scientists claim that 14.5% of all human-derived emissions come from livestockIndirectly or directly. Globally, there have been many calls for drastic changes in livestock production and diet to address climate chaos. But which livestock and where? As a new reportI co-authored this argument: It is vitally important that we distinguish between production systems.

All milk and all meat are not the same. Extensive, often mobile, pastoral systems – of the sort commonly seen across the African continent, as well as in Asia, Latin America and Europe – have hugely different effects to contained, intensive industrial livestock production.

All livestock are often lumped together in standard narratives about diets and production shifts. Inadvertently, cows are equated with polluting carsAnd beef with coal. The simplistic “all livestock are bad” narrative is promoted by campaign organisations, environmental celebrities, rich philanthropists and policymakers alike. It dominates. media coverage. But, a more complex debate is necessary.

Delving into data

Our reportThis article examines the data and points out the problems of using aggregate statistics when assessing the effects of livestock on global climate.

Certain types of livestock production, particularly those that use industrial systems, can be very harmful to the environment. They also cause water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. They contribute to deforestation, such as through increased demand for feed and expanded grazing areas. They also reduce the amount of animal-source foods in diets, whether in the global north or south, makes much sense, both for the environment and for people’s health.

Industrial systems are just one type of livestock production. This reality is not captured in aggregate emission figures. Looking across life-cycle assessments – a technique widely used to assess the impacts on climate change from different agri-food systems – we found some important gaps and assumptions.

One is that global assessments are overwhelmingly built on data from industrial systems. A frequently quoted paper looking at 38,700 farms and 1,600 processors only focused on “commercially viable” units, mostly from Europe and North America. However, not all livestock are the same, meaning that global extrapolations don’t work.

For example, research in Kenya shows how assumptions about emissionsThe information provided by African animals is inaccurate. These livestock are smaller, have better quality diets because of selective grazing, and have physiologies that are adapted to their environment. They are not the same as highly bred animals in a respiration chamber. This is where most of the data on emission factor comes from. Data from extensive systems are vastly underrepresented. For instance, a review of food production life cycle assessmentsOnly 0.4% of these studies were from Africa, where widespread pastoralism is prevalent across large areas.

Another problem is that most assessments only focus on the emissions impacts per animal or per product. This leads to a misleading picture, as the wider costs and benefits of the system are not considered. Industrialised systems are favored by those who believe in methane reduction. This is due to the fact that animals eat low-quality, rough forage on open rangelands. This misses what the point is: a wider, better methane-reducing feed system in contained systems. integrated systems approachIt must include all impacts as well as benefits. Extensive grazing, for example, can increase soil carbon stocks and add to the already large carbon stock in open rangelands.

Then there’s the fact that methane and carbon dioxide have different lifetimes in the atmosphere and are not equivalent. Methane is a potent but short-lived gas. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for almost all of its life. While it is possible to reduce warming by reducing methane emissions in the short term, long term climate change must be focused on carbon dioxide. It therefore makes a big difference how different greenhouse gases are assessed and how any “global warming potential” is estimated. Simply put, cows and cars are not the same.

It is also important to consider the baseline used. Pastoral systems may not result in additional emissions from a “natural” baseline. In large systems in Africa, domestic livestock replaces wildlife that emits comparable amounts of greenhouse gases. However, industrial systems have significant environmental impacts. These include methane emissions from production and imports of feed.

Climate justice

It is important to do a more comprehensive assessment. Extensive livestock contribute to emissions, but it’s simultaneously true that they produce multiple environmental benefits – including potentially through carbon sequestration, improving biodiversity and enhancing landscapes.

Animal-source food are also available vital for nutritionProviding high-density protein, and other nutrients, particularly for low income and vulnerable populations, and in areas where crops cannot be grown.

Across the world livestock – cattle, sheep, goats, camels, yaks, llamas and more – provide income and livelihoods for many. The world’s rangelands make up over half the world’s land surfaceThese are home to millions of people.

As countries make commitments to reduce methane emission, a more sophisticated debate will be needed. major injusticesIt will result. The danger is that, as regulations are developed, verification procedures approved and reporting systems initiated, livestock systems in Africa and elsewhere will be penalised, with major consequences for poor people’s livelihoods.

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