Cow 'emissions' more damaging to planet than CO2 from cars
December 11, 2006 6:57 AM   Subscribe

Livestock's Long Shadow, a new UN FAO report (full report) says livestock (cows, pig, sheep, etc.) generate more CO2 than all forms of transportation (cars, planes, etc) combined, with the worlds live stock expected to double by 2050.
posted by stbalbach (34 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ah gotta love the argument : therefore why bother about cars/energy generation/heat generation, the real problem is the Cow , I tell you ! Terrah Cow

I can see this argument coming soon to your nearest hypnotic tube.

That said I'll go read the damn thing, and don't you dare breathe you eco terrorists
posted by elpapacito at 7:11 AM on December 11, 2006


This is a silly thing to point out. First of all, duh, of course living creatures put out more CO2 than cars and trucks, there are a lot more of them and they are around longer than the average car. You want to be horrified? Add birds and insects to the total.

But there is a self-regulating process in place with respect to animals and the plants they eat that convert CO2 back to oxygen. There is no such mechanism for cars, vehicles, etc.

The point is that you can control the vehicular sources of CO2 and still having vehicles. We don't want to do this for some inexplicable reason.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:19 AM on December 11, 2006


i don't think the report is "pointed out" to minimize transportation outputs. the report shows consequences of agricultural choices on air quality, land use, and poverty. also methane is the real concern. plants do not convert methane back to oxygen and methane is a far worse greenhouse gas than co2. you concern is required for both transportation and food chain issues.

now, get back to work.
posted by 3.2.3 at 7:27 AM on December 11, 2006


Now there's an interesting dilemma. If given the choice, would Americans prefer to cut back on driving or beef?
posted by namespan at 7:30 AM on December 11, 2006


This is why cows should not drive cars.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 7:32 AM on December 11, 2006 [3 favorites]


Pastabagel, domestic animals only account for 15% to 20% of the worlds animal bio-mass (humans are about 5%), so yeah, from that basic perspective, you would be right. But the problem is more complex - it's the type of animal (range animals), the resources they demand (clearing forests), the practices currently used in husbandry (corn-fed cows), etc.. the report goes into all this. Also, domestic animals would not exist if not for humans, so they are no different than any other human generated CO2 source, they can't be compared to wild birds.
posted by stbalbach at 7:34 AM on December 11, 2006


Pastabagel, surely the point is that the animals in the study are those raised by humans, so we could control their CO2 output by changing our diet and raising fewer of them.
posted by Coventry at 7:35 AM on December 11, 2006


Is this one of the threads where nobody has to read the links and just post what they think at random?
posted by Burhanistan at 7:45 AM on December 11, 2006


plants do not convert methane back to oxygen and methane is a far worse greenhouse gas than co2.

Yeah, but methane only has an atmospheric lifetime of about eight years. It's not processed by plants, but it tends to rise to the top of the atmosphere and get blown off into space.
posted by bshort at 7:48 AM on December 11, 2006


Expansion of livestock production is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America where the greatest amount of deforestation is occurring � 70 percent of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures, and feedcrops cover a large part of the remainder.

It isn't fat lazy americans, and it's not our diet to change. To do this you have to convince the more impoverished parts of the world that are forested not to raise their own food.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:51 AM on December 11, 2006


bshort, I'll be keeping that in mind for the next time my wife complains about smells around the house.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:52 AM on December 11, 2006


Now there's an interesting dilemma. If given the choice, would Americans prefer to cut back on driving or beef?

They would continue to drive and they would eat fake beef.

Of course, it is not a matter of choosing one or the other. The raising of animals for meat (rather than using that land to grow vegetation for our consumption) is a problem, as is the overuse of fossil fuels. We need fewer cars, fewer roads, fewer parking lots, fewer trips in motorized vehicles, fewer cattle farms, fewer pig farms, fewer chicken farms, less importation (or perhaps no importation) of meat products, less air conditioning, less unnecessary lighting, more vegetation, and more vegetarian meals. That and a horrible world plague very soon might turn things around before people in most coastal cities start commuting to the tune of a barcarolle.
posted by pracowity at 7:55 AM on December 11, 2006


pracowity, it sounds to me like we just need fewer people.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:00 AM on December 11, 2006


We can each and everyone of us contribute to lessening this problem by doubling up on the number of pigs and cows we eat.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 8:03 AM on December 11, 2006


So wait, I need to become vegetarian now?
posted by SirOmega at 8:04 AM on December 11, 2006


That and a horrible world plague very soon might turn things around before people in most coastal cities start commuting to the tune of a barcarolle.

Or the earth could be hit by an asteroid tomorrow, rendering all our efforts to preserve the environment laughably meaningless.

Fewer cars means more walking, which means greater population denisty around workplaces, which means more crime and urban sanitation issues, etc. Everything has a tradeoff, and everything looks bad if you focus on the negatives. Frankly, the root cause of all of this is medicine, which has keep a lot of people alive who otherwise would not have made it past 3. So unless you're advocating that...

As nations choose peaceful resolution of conflicts over war, and as medicine and engineering made greater progress to neutralizing death due to illness, injury or natural disaster, we are going to have to come up with a way to limit the number of people being born before we have some real problems on our hands.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:20 AM on December 11, 2006


I guess I'll have to stop riding my cow to work.
posted by solid-one-love at 8:27 AM on December 11, 2006


"If given the choice, would Americans prefer to cut back on driving or beef?"

...

"...it sounds to me like we just need fewer people"

Exactly! Fewer people means I get to keep my car and my steaks.

Get cracking, Americans. Off yourselves! I'll thank you for it.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:37 AM on December 11, 2006


Does that mean were finally going to see vat-grown, boneless, cloned beef tissue? Mmmmm....beef tissue...
posted by doctor_negative at 8:47 AM on December 11, 2006


Lesson learned: If cows drive they must keep the windows rolled up.

The inevitability of vat grown beef hangs over our heads like the... like the... haunch of Democles.
posted by ewkpates at 9:07 AM on December 11, 2006


Fewer cars means more walking, which means greater population denisty around workplaces, which means more crime and urban sanitation issues, etc.

IIRC, Pastabagel, the per-captia crime rate decreases as more people live around workplaces. It's what makes many European cities more liveable and interesting than many North American cities.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:10 AM on December 11, 2006


Al Franken actually noted this in one of his books a few years ago in a rare moment of total seriousness: the problem isn't as much the production of CO2, methane, and other waste, but its consolidation in central areas. The example he noted was how much of the country's pork production is done by a gigantic pork farm in the Midwest, as opposed to smaller family-owned farms spread across the country. Instead of natural environmental cycles of waste production, you end up with, to quote the book, "a giant river of pig shit."

I don't think it's a problem that cows are producing CO2 as much as a small patch of land with thousands of cows are all producing massive clouds of CO2 in a small area that nature is unequipped to maintain at that capacity.

There's finite amounts of ammonia in the very air you're breathing. If you drank a bottle of it you'd die.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 9:11 AM on December 11, 2006


Not to mention the methane they produce... OY!
posted by Doohickie at 9:12 AM on December 11, 2006


But there is a self-regulating process in place with respect to animals and the plants they eat that convert CO2 back to oxygen. There is no such mechanism for cars, vehicles, etc.

I realize that this is pretty far upthread by now but just have to say that this is a funny reaction. C02 is C02. Nature doesn't distinguish between that produced by industry and that produced by agriculture. The difference is in amount.

Years back the old "cow-fart" argument would get tossed around to annoy the environmentalists, but the greens (well the ones I knew) had an inner circle of vegetarians who were always pleased to be able to quote comparative land use stats. This is just one more arrow in their quiver, really, and it's been around a long while. The data is just catching up. You want to talk about natural cycles, well, the planet didn't naturally have anywhere near this many cattle grazing on it. Nothing natural about it.

I don't think it's a problem that cows are producing CO2 as much as a small patch of land with thousands of cows are all producing massive clouds of CO2 in a small area that nature is unequipped to maintain at that capacity.

I don't know a lot about this but from what I understand, the solid waste presents a different kind of problem -- pig super-factories are notorious in this regard. I don't think that the mere proximity of C02 producers has any extra effect, but please correct me if I'm wrong.
posted by dreamsign at 11:20 AM on December 11, 2006


Yeah, but methane only has an atmospheric lifetime of about eight years. It's not processed by plants, but it tends to rise to the top of the atmosphere and get blown off into space.

No. While I don't know what you mean by processed, there are terrestrial methane sinks. Methane is thought to be mainly degraded in the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) through a reaction with a hydroxyl radical.
posted by peeedro at 11:44 AM on December 11, 2006


I don't think it's a problem that cows are producing CO2 as much as a small patch of land with thousands of cows are all producing massive clouds of CO2 in a small area that nature is unequipped to maintain at that capacity.

To an extent, it may be right that spreading the same production around would be better for the environment, but then you would lose the economies of scale that factory farming offers. Factory farms would put small farms out of business every time.

To control carbon dioxide emissions, it would be better for people to learn to control the size of the portions they consume, to develop a bit of self-restraint. Don't supersize when the regular meal is already too much. Do the opposite – subsize it if you want to live longer and feel better. And don't restrict portion control to food portions. Don't drive when you can walk. Don't get something cheap, disposable, and now when you can get something better by waiting and saving a little bit. Turn the thermostat down a couple of degrees in the winter and up a couple of degrees in the summer. Don't buy on credit if you can save the money for it. Don't buy at all if you can borrow it and it's something you'll get only limited use of it. Don't buy a new recreational gadget until the old one fails – don't worry, they're built to fail. Don't buy a vehicle that is overpowered or oversized for its job. Get a smaller home closer to work – people are happier that way and it is much better for the environment. Most or all of that would help in one way or another – mining, refining, manufacturing, transporting, storing, powering, and disposing of your stuff – to carbon dioxide reduction.
posted by pracowity at 11:57 AM on December 11, 2006 [1 favorite]


But there is a self-regulating process in place with respect to animals and the plants they eat that convert CO2 back to oxygen. There is no such mechanism for cars, vehicles, etc.

For wild animals, this is true. But most farm animals aren't fed plants. They're fed animal feed, which is made from all kind of things, including ground up animals and ground up animal shit (although recent legislation may have changed this slightly). There's absolutely no balance when it comes to factory farming, which is where most meat comes from.

I'm going to shut up now, because I don't know enough about the issue, but it seems to me there is a lot of pontificating going on right now.

I agree we have a large population but it's mostly about resource use, not population size. If everyone on earth used as many resources as Americans do, we could support around 2.5 billion people or so (this is just a rough estimate based on statements that we'd need to 3 Earths to support a population of 6.5 billion. Some estimates say we'd need 5 earths).

Maybe now would be a good time to make changes to our behavior rather than arguing about whose fault it is.
posted by Deathalicious at 12:04 PM on December 11, 2006


Oh darn. Not only did I not shut up, but I pontificated. Sorry about that. I couldn't help it.
posted by Deathalicious at 12:05 PM on December 11, 2006


dreamsign writes "C02 is C02. Nature doesn't distinguish between that produced by industry and that produced by agriculture. The difference is in amount."

Nature doesn't distiguish but we can see a big difference in C02 from cows and that from autos. One is essentially carbon neutral the other adds carbon to the atmosphere that was buried in compact form deep underground.
posted by Mitheral at 5:24 PM on December 11, 2006


Mitheral: Nature doesn't distiguish but we can see a big difference in C02 from cows and that from autos. One is essentially carbon neutral the other adds carbon to the atmosphere that was buried in compact form deep underground.

I don't think that is a correct statement since the food that we choose to produce, and the level at which we produce it, is especially resource intensive. Right now I can't think of a better pop-sci start to this concept than this Harpers article, The Oil We Eat. Intensive livestock production requires burning fossil fuels. Additionally, this report includes the effects of pasture degradation and deforestation to the ecological footprint of livestock production. When these aspects are included the calories you get from livestock are seen as a major contributor to anthropogenic climate change. This report urges this issue to be recognized, so you don't get to have all of your bacon with none of the climate change guilt anymore. If you read even the summary you might get this.

The other gotcha is that the report states that livestock's contribution to greenhouse gas emission is not limited to carbon dioxide, but other gases that have a greater impact. From the executive summary:
Livestock are responsible for much larger shares of some gases with far higher potential to warm the atmosphere. The sector emits 37 percent of anthropogenic methane (with 23 times the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2) most of that from enteric fermentation by ruminants. It emits 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide (with 296 times the GWP of CO2), the great majority from manure. Livestock are also responsible for almost two-thirds (64 percent) of anthropogenic ammonia emissions, which contribute significantly to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems.
Also note: the fpp is inaccurate in saying, "livestock ... generate more CO2 than all forms of transportation combined..." The report actually states, "The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport [em mine]." CO2 equivalent is a measurement of the global warming potential of emissions using the climate impact of CO2 as a benchmark. Although transportation emits more CO2 than livestock, the greenhouse gases produced by livestock -carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide considered together- have a greater potential effect than those from the transportation sector.
posted by peeedro at 10:22 PM on December 11, 2006


Peter Singer, the australian philosopher, reckons that going veggie is 'the single most effective thing that the average person can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

When i read that I really wanted to see some science, and here it is. Thanks stbalback!

[goes back to nibbling on roast pumpkin seeds, carrots & hummus]
posted by algreer at 5:00 AM on December 12, 2006


It's possible to buy free-range locally produced meat. The cows eat grass which has no fossil fuel inputs, and are transported a short distance one time direct to the consumer - in fact meat can be less than vegetables, which are transported from CA and grown with fertilizer. It's not really a reason to go vegan IMO, except to make a statement - as the report says, much of the problem of livestock can be fixed by some basic husbandry changes.

The link to "Oil We Eat" above is highly recommend.
posted by stbalbach at 5:10 AM on December 12, 2006


So going vegetarian and eating only free-range locally produced meat are both effective ways of cutting greenhouse gas emissions... Power to the diet!

Resisting the urge to go on a 'the wonders of vegetarianism' rant. Really restraining those fingers over the keyboard...

...

Phew. Managed it ;)
posted by algreer at 5:29 AM on December 12, 2006


It seems to me that comparing the entire livestock life-cycle emissions to the emissions of other sectors is a little disingenuous (or maybe just bad accounting), since the greenhouse impacts of (for example) fertilizer production or the transportation of feed should already be included in the sectoral accounting.
posted by nickmark at 7:15 AM on December 12, 2006


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