Emissions related to animal agriculture are often highlighted as a reason for embracing a meatless diet or forgoing the consumption of any type of animal products. The significance of emissions that stem from livestock can frequently be misrepresented and the difference between methane and carbon dioxide is also not widely understood.
“There’s definitely an exaggerated nature to livestock and their emissions and I think a lot of that stems from a report that came out from the Food and Agricultural Organization back in 2008,” said Samantha Werth, Graduate Student Researcher at UC Davis. “That report came out and kind of stuck in terms of the media. That was something that a lot of people grabbed on to as ‘look, livestock are exponentially worse than transportation therefore we should stop eating meat. We should stop raising livestock because they’re bad for the environment.’”
That report indicated that livestock contributed more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than transportation was conducted using different metrics for comparison. However, it has sparked the belief that methane emissions from livestock are a major contributor to climate change. The critical point that is not commonly recognized is the significant disparity between the different GHG emissions and how they affect the atmosphere.
“Methane stays in the atmosphere for about ten years; versus carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere having a warming effect for 1,000 years,” Werth noted. “We’re misrepresenting the actual impacts coming from cattle versus impacts coming from something like transportation.”
The fundamental difference between methane emissions from livestock and carbon dioxide emissions from cars, trucks, and airplanes is not regularly included in the debate about removing meat from diets to address climate change. A study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science noted that even if every American stopped consuming meat GHG emissions would only be reduced by less than three percent in the U.S.
The question of meat consumption and how that relates to the environment was put into the spotlight once again recently during the Oscars. To help guide the conversation about animal agriculture to include scientific information, Werth has posted an open letter to Hollywood to provide context and clear up some of the misunderstandings about emissions, where she explained that a “decision to stop eating meat will not help stop climate change.”