How did the world’s ruminant animals become Public Enemy No 1 for many in the climate change debate?
Ruminants have always roamed the earth, belching methane which lasts about 12 years in the atmosphere, before it is oxidised to become carbon dioxide, which is absorbed by plants.
Then the world started creating new carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuel which had stored carbon in the earth since prehistoric times.
This exceeded the ability of oceans and soils and plants to absorb carbon dioxide.
The surplus gas joined other gases to thicken the “blanket” in the atmosphere which is blamed for global warming (without this “blanket”, the planet would be too cold for us to survive).
Thanks to farming advances, a cow now emits less methane than 100 years ago.
New methods are being developed to reduce their methane emissions even further.
Cattle numbers have increased, but even in the US, a huge dairy and beef producer, the cattle herd’s emissions are estimated to be not substantially more than came from the buffalo, and other wild ruminants of pre-settlement times.
Nevertheless, the worldwide media message from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes (IPCC) report was “‘Eat less meat to save the Earth”.
In the report, the IPCC published 20 headline statements for policy makers. But only one estimated the effect of dietary responses.
It relied on a 2016 finding that if the entire world switched to a vegan diet, giving up dairy and eggs as well as meat, food-related greenhouse-gas emissions could be cut as much as 70%.
But only a seventh of all emissions are food-related, and this most extreme diet scenario also assumes that “people consume just enough calories to maintain a healthy body weight.”
It’s an unlikely scenario for a world in which 1.9 billion adults are overweight, despite decades of healthy-eating campaigns.
A large US survey from 2014 found 84% of vegetarians abandon the diet in less than a year.
Scientists have estimated switching successfully to vegetarianism reduces your individual emissions by the equivalent of 1,190 pounds of carbon dioxide per year.
But that’s only 4.3% of emissions for the average person in a developed country. The IPCC report quotes studies showing meat restriction reduces emissions only 2%.
Nevertheless, the Goldsmiths University of London college has just banned beef from university cafes to tackle climate crisis, as well as limiting single-use plastics, and installing more solar panels, in a bid to become carbon neutral by 2025.
And the Green Party in Germany has proposed that value-added tax on meat be increased from 7% to 19%.
Obviously, the party thinks this is politically feasible in a world where those worried about climate change are being turned against meat.
But such belief may be based on a misconception.
In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation published “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which stated that livestock produced 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and this did more to harm the climate than all modes of transportation combined.
This was wrong, and has since been corrected by Henning Steinfeld, the report’s senior author.
They used a comprehensive life-cycle of livestock, but a different method when they analysed transportation.
For livestock, they included fertiliser, converting land from forest to pasture, animal feed production, and emissions from animals.
For transportation, they included only exhaust emitted, and ignored manufacture of vehicles and parts, and transport infrastructure.
But the damage has been done.
As US climate change expert Frank Mitloehner (see twitter.com/GHGGuru) says, quoting Leo Tolstoy, ““The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already.
“But the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”