Spare The Cows, Save The Planet
Animals raised for food contribute substantially to climate change. In particular, ruminants-cows, bison, sheep, and goats-emit two potent greenhouse gases, methane, and nitrous oxide. Growing feed for these animals also displaces potential carbon sinks. Animal agriculture accounts for an estimated 15% of annual greenhouse gas emissions (GHG’s), and it may be responsible for as much as one-third of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to date. Eating more plants seems like a potential, if partial solution, but how much impact would it really have?
To answer this question researchers used the Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model. Inputs included country-specific production data by species from domestic ruminants raised for food. Using 2019 as a baseline, they calculated global emissions of CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide from ruminant agriculture. They then used the model to gauge the effects on GHG emissions and biomass recovery from reducing or eliminating animal products. Scenarios included the immediate replacement of all animal products with a plant-only diet, a gradual transition to just plants over 15 years, and versions that replaced only specific animal products.
Results showed that if, across the globe, people quit consuming animal products over the next fifteen years, methane and nitrous oxide levels would drop rapidly. Indeed, this change would be the equivalent of a 70% reduction in CO2 emissions. Consequently, CO2 accumulation would also slow. The combined effects would stabilize the climate for 30 years, from 2030 to 2060. This would reduce radiative forcing, a measure of the warming potential of the atmosphere by providing half the emissions reduction needed to limit the rise in global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius. Meat and milk from cows and buffalo account for 80% of the climate opportunity in the 15-year transition scenario. To put it another way, you would have to drive 339 miles to create the emissions impact of one pound of beef.
The authors caution that their model is intentionally simple. It does not account for a number of factors commonly incorporated into forecasts of climate change such as emissions variability over time and location, feedback loops between natural and anthropogenic emissions, and the effects of carbon capture. However, they compared their results to other analyses and found the results to be qualitatively similar.
Ending our current system of animal agriculture for ruminants would reduce animal suffering and death on a grand scale. With it would go the livelihoods of those who currently work in the system, and it could also wipe out entire communities in rural areas. Governments across the globe would need to ensure the economic support of those affected as they transition to different work. Still, growth in the demand for animal products, on its current trajectory, will require the destruction of an area roughly equal to the combined land acreage of Africa and South America. This is not an option for the planet.
This analysis shows that ending animal agriculture has enormous potential to mitigate climate change and its disastrous effects. It would give us three decades to make other changes that could permanently solve the problem. Yet it’s important to note that this research has a clear conflict of interest. The two academic researchers are both part of Impossible Foods. One is the founder and CEO, and the other is a company advisor. Both are shareholders and thus stand to gain from the paper’s findings. While the authors acknowledge this upfront, animal advocates should be cautious about embracing these results. They do lean in the direction of existing evidence, but advocates should seek out further peer-reviewed, confirmatory studies to buttress the case made by this research.