There are just two actions needed to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown: leave fossil fuels in the ground and stop farming animals. But, thanks to the power of the two industries, both aims are officially unmentionable. Neither of them has featured in any of the declarations from the 26 climate summits concluded so far.
Astonishingly, the sectors themselves are seldom mentioned. I’ve worked through every final agreement produced by the summits since they began. Fossil fuels are named in only six of them. Just one hints at using less overall: the others propose only to improve efficiency (which, as we have known since the 19th century, can often paradoxically increase fossil fuel use), attempt technical fixes or, in the case of last year’s agreement in Glasgow, phase down “unabated” coal burning, while saying nothing about reducing oil or gas. Not one of them suggests extracting less. If fossil fuels are removed from the ground, they will be used, regardless of governments’ vague declarations about consumption.
The other omission is even starker. Livestock is mentioned in only three agreements, and the only action each of them proposes is “management”. Nowhere is there a word about reduction. It’s as though nuclear non-proliferation negotiators had decided not to talk about bombs. You cannot address an issue if you will not discuss it.
The call to stop farming animals should be as familiar as the call to leave fossil fuels in the ground. But it is seldom heard. Livestock farming, a recent paper in the journal Sustainability estimates, accounts for between 16.5% and 28% of all greenhouse gas pollution. The wide range of these figures is an indication of how badly this issue has been neglected. As the same paper shows, the official figure (14.5%), published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, is clearly wrong. Everyone in the field knows it, yet few attempts have been made to update it.
Even if the minimum number (16.5%) applies, this is greater than all the world’s transport emissions. And it is growing fast. In the 20 years to 2018, global meat consumption rose by 58%. A paper in Climate Policy estimates that, by 2030, greenhouse gases from livestock farming could use half the world’s entire carbon budget, if we want to avoid more than 1.5C of global heating.
An analysis by Our World in Data shows that even if greenhouse gas pollution from every other sector were eliminated today, by 2100 food production will, on its current trajectory, bust the global carbon budget two or three times over. This is largely because of animal farming, which accounts for 57% of greenhouse gases from the food system, though it provides just 18% of the calories.
This issue has become even more urgent now we know the heating impact of methane is rising. Livestock farming is the world’s greatest source of methane released by human activities. Yet there is no mention of it in the global methane pledge launched at last year’s climate…
Read More: There’s one big subject our leaders at Cop27 won’t touch: livestock farming | George