FAO Underplays Impact of Livestock Industry Emissions

New report undercounts both risks and opportunities in food and forest

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published a report yesterday that says the world should expect a 70 percent increase in livestock production by 2050. According to the report, “Tackling climate change through livestock: A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities,” greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector is set to increase from the current 7.1 gigatons per year. Emissions would top out at 8.5 gigatons per year only if farmers cut emissions from livestock by 30 percent, through adoption of more efficient breeding and feeding practices.

CowsPhoto by Ian MannionOur research shows that the entire life cycle and supply chain of livestock products accounts for at least 51 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.

The FAO’s numbers don’t add up. According to a widely-cited assessment by the World Bank Group’s Jeff Anhang and me, the entire life cycle and supply chain of livestock products accounts for at least 51 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. We notably assess carbon dioxide in livestock respiration and its reflection in carbon absorption forgone on land set aside for livestock and feed production, estimated by the International Livestock Research Institute to occupy 45 percent of all land on earth, which the FAO neglects to count.

Also, unlike the FAO, we note that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have both projected that the concentration of greenhouse gas in our atmosphere may rise to irreversibly catastrophic levels by 2017 if nothing is done to change course. To stop climate change through 2017 and beyond, governments have called on all industries worldwide to eliminate 80 to 95 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (compared to 1990).

As a result, we conclude that the only pragmatic way to reverse climate change by 2017 as needed is to replace at least 25 percent of today’s livestock products with better alternatives. Such alternatives can range from whole grains and legumes to an array of fancy vegan meat and egg substitutes made from such items as peas, sorghum, and beans.

The FAO report fails to recognize the urgent need to reduce global emissions and stop climate change. It more generally fails to use basic principles of environmental assessment. Notably, it examines risks involved in such areas as air and water pollution, and claims that those risks must be balanced with benefits available from raising livestock. Such an assessment fails to separate livestock’s lesser risks and impacts from their greater ones – a basic task of environmental assessment. The greatest environmental risks are normally defined as those that are diverse, irreversible, and unprecedented – which, in this case, aren’t associated with air and water pollution but with climate change.

Also, the FAO report assesses only livestock products and fails to perform any analysis of alternatives, another basic element of environmental assessment.

Conversely, our analysis identifies a unique dual benefit of replacing a substantial amount of today’s livestock products with alternatives. That is, such replacement can both significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and free up land to permit reforestation that would provide large-scale greenhouse gas sequestration. Most land used for livestock and feed production was once forested, and could be forested again.

The FAO’s analysis also omits counting carbon dioxide from livestock respiration. Yet reality no longer reflects the old model of the carbon cycle, in which photosynthesis (carbon intake) balanced respiration (carbon emission). That model was valid as long as there were roughly constant levels of respiration and photosynthesis on Earth. But in recent decades, respiration has increased exponentially as livestock production has intensified (now totaling more than 60 billion animals raised on land every year). This has been accompanied by large-scale deforestation and forest-burning, in large part to graze livestock and grow crops for them, leading to huge increases in carbon emissions and a dramatic decline in Earth’s photosynthetic capacity, and therefore in its capacity to sequester greenhouse gas. As a result, either carbon dioxide released via livestock respiration – or carbon absorption forgone on land set aside for livestock and feed production – should be counted as emissions.

The only way for most industries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a large scale is by using renewable energy. But studies show that sufficient renewable energy infrastructure to stop climate change would take at least 20 years and cost $18 trillion to develop.

The livestock sector is a notable exception among industries, as the bulk of its greenhouse gas emissions are not from energy usage, but from biological processes. So it’s easier, and therefore, especially important to achieve a large and rapid reduction in greenhouse gas from the livestock sector.

The objective of recent international climate treaty negotiations has been to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 13 percent by 2017. If, as our research shows, at least 51 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas is attributable to livestock, then we could meet the treaty target by replacing about 25 percent of today’s livestock products with alternatives.

Paradoxically, if livestock emissions are actually at the lower level that the FAO says, then it would require replacing a greater amount of livestock products with alternatives to achieve the same treaty target; in fact, at least 85 percent of today’s livestock products would need to be replaced with alternatives.

Alternatives to livestock products are generally responsible for minimal greenhouse gas emissions. There is documented potential for agricultural change to draw down atmospheric carbon to pre-industrial revolution levels within five years, by stopping deforestation and prioritizing reforestation. Doing so while simultaneously replacing a substantial amount of livestock products with better alternatives may be the only pragmatic way to halt climate change within the few years remaining before climate disruption becomes irreversible.

One of the advantages of replacing livestock products versus replacing fossil fuel infrastructure is that it is easy for any individual consumer to do the former on their own, unlike the latter. Still, to ensure that sufficient action is taken, governments should develop policies to provide incentives for replacing at least 25 percent of today’s livestock products with better alternatives by 2017. Finally, replacing at least 25 percent of today’s livestock products with better alternatives by 2017 may be the only available business case for industry leaders to act pragmatically to stop climate change before it is too late.

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