Animal agriculture is the leading cause of global warming. We are all concerned about climate change and most people support the move to renewable energy. But many of us are unaware of the catastrophic effect meat, dairy and egg production is having on global warming and other environmental issues. In Australia, animal agriculture emits about 50% of all greenhouse gases, when accounted over 20 years. This is more than all other sources, including energy generation and transport. Animal agriculture produces greenhouse gases through land clearing for grazing, methane produced by cows and sheep, savanna burning for clearing and emissions from manure.
In their greenhouse gas calculations, the IPCC and other international environmental organisations use warming potentials of greenhouse gases using a 100-year time frame. The decision to use a 100-year time frame is arbitrary. The IPCC states that "There is no scientific argument for selecting 100 years compared with other choices. The choice of time horizon is a value judgement." The convention to use a 100-year time frame was decided several decades ago, before the urgent need to avoid climate-system tipping points was understood. Given the urgency of the emissions reductions required to avoid catastrophic temperature increases, 20-year global warming potentials are much more relevant. Over 20 years, the global warming potential of methane is about 5 times higher than over 100 years. Animal agriculture is the largest source of methane and so if we measure the impact of sectors using a 20-year time frame, the climate impact of agriculture is significantly higher.
The IPCC and other groups also ignore the impact of short-term gases on global warming. In the short time we have available to overcome climate change, the global warming potential of these short-lived gases becomes much more significant. Most of these gases are emitted by animal agriculture.
When 20-year global warming potentials are used and short-term gases are included, we find that animal agriculture is responsible for about 50% of all greenhouse gases, both in Australia and worldwide.
Methane stays in the atmosphere on average about 12 years. This means that reductions in methane emissions will cause more immediate cuts to global warming that reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for over 100 years, so even if carbon dioxide emissions (from, for example, burning fossil fuels) were reduced now, it would take many decades for this to have an effect on global warming.
Once we understand that animal agriculture is a major cause of global warming, a simple, effective and relatively quick solution becomes clear. By abolishing the use of animals for food, we not only act ethically for the animals, but also help slow and eventually reverse global warming.
The economic impact of removing animals from the agricultural system will not be as significant as most people believe. The animal agriculture industry is a relatively small part of the modern Australian economy. It currently contributes about 1.2% to the Australian GDP and employs less than 1.5% of the Australian workforce.
If animals were no longer part of the agricultural system, there would be significant positive impacts not just on global warming, but also on other aspects of the environment. Woodlands and forests could be revegetated, marine environments and wildlife habitats could be restored, biodiversity increased, species extinctions reduced, and water use, soil loss and pollution all reduced.
Alongside these benefits, any negative economic impacts could be carefully managed to avoid dislocation, by reskilling workers and reusing land for other purposes. Currently, over half of the Australian continent is used for animal agricultural. Much of this could be used for sequestering carbon to help reduce global warming.
At an individual level, the single best thing you can do for the environment is to live vegan. At a national and worldwide level, the best thing we can do is to abolish the use of animals for food, clothing, entertainment or any other purpose.
To achieve climate and social justice and avoid catastrophe, we need to work on multiple fronts. Yes, we need to transition to 100% renewable energy. Yes, we need to change cities so we depend on cars less. Yes, we need to make buildings more energy efficient. But we also need to move quickly to a vegan way of life.
For more information and full references see
- Impact of a vegan agricultural system on the environment, Vegan Australia
- Impact of a vegan agricultural system on land use, Vegan Australia
- Impact of a vegan agricultural system on the economy, Vegan Australia
- Submission to Environment Department's review of climate change policies, Vegan Australia
- Cowspiracy (documentary film)
- Livestock and greenhouse gas emissions: The importance of getting the numbers right, Herrero et al (read full text here)
- For a discussion on the use of 20-year vs 100-year Global Warming Potentials see Short-Lived Promise? The Science and Policy of Cumulative and Short-Lived Climate Pollutants
- For another discussion on Global Warming Potentials see How Bad of a Greenhouse Gas Is Methane?, Scientific American
- See Howarth alerts White House of growing methane danger for a look at the politics behind Global Warming Potentials