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 arbitrary decision to use a 100-year time frame was made by scientists several decades ago, before it was known how urgent the global warming issue was. Given the urgency of the emissions reduction required to avoid catastrophic temperature increases, 20-year global warming potentials are much more reasonable. Over 20 years, the global warming potential of methane is about 5 times higher than over 100 years. Animal agriculture is a major source of methane.
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 become 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 over 100 years 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 about 7% of exports. It employs 1-2% of the Australian workforce.
If animals were no longer part of the agricultural system, there would be significant positive impacts on global warming and other aspects of the environment, including revegetation of woodlands and forests, help restore habitat, increase biodiversity, reduce species extinctions, reduce water use, reduce soil loss, reduce pollution, and restore marine environment.
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 saving. But we also need to move quickly to a vegan way of life.
For more information and full references see our reports on the impact of a vegan agricultural system on land use, the environment and the economy. This topic is also covered in the documentary film Cowspiracy.