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Face masks for cows are not a solution to the climate crisis

Face masks for cows are not a solution to the climate crisis

A cow wearing a Zelp methane face mask

Prince Charles was photographed admiring a model cow made in a lace pattern a couple of weeks back. black maskIt looked a lot like something out of a dystopian horror movie.

The device, which was designed by UK company ZELP, neutralizes methane by catching a cow’s burp and oxidizing it, meaning it’s released into the atmosphere as CO2 and water vapor.

It was named as one of the winners of a £50,000 prize in the The Prince of Wales’ inaugural Terra Carta Design Lab, a competition that recognises “innovative design solutions to the climate crisis.”

While the design may be original, it is concerning that these contraptions have been lauded and celebrated by the press, the public and one of the most well-known royals in the world as a viable solution for the climate crisis.

It is absurd to think that animal agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions can be controlled by some media-friendly device, rather than a complete overhaul of our food system. The masks are papering over the cracks of the crisis and failing to address the root cause of the problem – that we eat far too much meat.

Emissions from animal farming

A cow wearing a Zelp methane face maskA cow wearing a Zelp methane face mask
ZelpTo reduce methane production, cows are forced to wear masks.

Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of global warming, and is generally understood to be responsible for at least 14.5 percent of the world’s emissions (One recent study however found it at 87 percent).

Cows are among the most harmful animals that we eat. This is due to the fact they emit methane when burping, farting, and defecate. 

Methane and carbon dioxideGlobal warming is caused by nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases. It has a warming effect of 80 times greater than CO2 after its 20-years in the atmosphere.

A UN report released in August 2021 stated that countries need to make “strong, rapid, and sustained reductions” in methane emissions. Methane is a gas with a short half-life. This means that we will see the benefits immediately after reducing its emissions.

These emissions must be reduced if we are to reduce global temperature quickly.

The warming planet

Around a third of the world’s methane comes from cattle, and the only way to sufficiently reduce these emissions is to dramatically cut the number of cows we farm for meat and dairy. The UN approved a report last year urging world leaders not to continue farming animals and to adopt plant-based food systems. In the meantime, 2018 study at Oxford University found that a 90 percent fall in beef consumption in western countries was “essential” to avoid climate breakdown.

However, while the public and senior royals are celebrating cow masks, the beef- and dairy industries are growing and the planet is getting more hotter. Worldwide, People ate 70.9 million metric tons of beef in 2020 – up from 65,000,000 in 2010.. Despite a pledge to reduce methane emissions almost by a third over the next decade, neither the US nor the EU have made any commitments regarding the agricultural sectors. 

An IPCC report published in April of this year proclaimed that limiting global heating is a “now or never” issue, so the idea that we have time to flitter about putting masks on a few cows, rather than creating urgent revolutionary new laws to reduce their numbers, is hugely problematic. While the masks do apparently remove around 53 percent of cows’ methane emissions, they fail to address emissions in their flatulence and manure. It would also prove difficult to distribute them sufficiently widely and convince a significant number of farmers to use them. 

A prototype of Zelp's methane cow face maskA prototype of Zelp's methane cow face mask
ZelpAnimal rights groups have criticized the device.

Even if the masks were able to neutralize all methane in cows and were given to everyone in the world, it would still not address other environmental crises that these animals have created.

Cattle farming is resource-intensive

Animal agriculture is one leading cause of deforestation. It is also one of the most important environmental issues we face today. Cattle ranching is responsible for approximately 80 percent of Amazon deforestation, and beef production takes up around half of the US’s agricultural land. Deforested land is also used for soy and other feed.

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Global warming is directly linked to the carbon buildup caused by deforestation. The CO2 that trees store is released when they are removed to make farmland. This reduces the amount of the gas in the atmosphere. Methane, therefore, isn’t the only greenhouse gas cow farming creates. 

The farming sector is responsible for animal welfare

But putting aside the environmental shortcomings of these masks, the idea that they are some sort of stroke of genius – when they likely inflict more misery on beings that already have a life more painful than it’s possible to imagine – shows how far removed we are from animal suffering. The designers claim that these masks fit “comfortably” and don’t impact their daily lives, but given that cows are sentient beingsThis is a possibility.

Clearly, it isn’t enough that we forcibly impregnate them, drag away their calves hours after they’re born, hook them up to milking machines, then pack them off to the slaughterhouse where they’re strung up and have their throats cut (often while they’re alive and kicking). Now, humans have decided to force them to spend their lives with a massive piece of plastic attached to their face, all so we can carry on burying our heads in the sand about the fact that what we’re doing to them is killing the planet. 

These masks are yet another example of how humans will do almost anything to avoid having to face the reality that we must stop eating animals in order to prevent climate catastrophe.

Although there is no doubt they will reduce methane in the cows that wear them, they will likely be a drop in an ocean in a world where cow farming is expanding unchecked and meat demand is increasing. We need government intervention to drastically reduce our meat consumption and transition to a plant based food system. 

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