Cattle eat in a grazing area on a mesa where grasses would normally be waist high but are instead much shorter following a lower snowpack and lack of rain during the historic western Colorado drought on June 30, 2021 in Mesa County near Whitewater, Colorado. (Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

What if Eating Animals Was the Main Cause of the Climate and Biodiversity Crises?

The inconvenient truth for our species is that we need to adopt vegan lifestyles as a matter of urgency.

As the world sinks into climate anxiety amid a global pantomime of broken promises and unconcealed corruption, is it possible that the solution to the climate and biodiversity crises could be cheap, quick and driven by the grassroots?

The solution to the climate and biodiversity crises is about more than the energy we use to power our economy. It's about the energy we use to power our bodies.

The international charade of climate inaction is about to head to Glasgow for COP26 where leaders of industry and our all too willing politicians will again pretend to lead. They will tell us that to solve the climate crisis, we need to purchase electric cars, install solar panels and wind turbines, and train people for "green" jobs that will provide even "greener" growth. Additionally, they will tell us that we need millions of machines to suck 12.5% of the CO2 out of the atmosphere to return the CO2 concentration to 350 parts per million (ppm). Then they will eat steak and shrimp for lunch before flying home on private jets and announcing new road infrastructure to an enthusiastic media. Now, while we are all in agreement that we must decarbonize our economy to escape the worst ravages of an inhospitable planet, what if we are doing things the wrong way round?

In a report published in the Journal of Ecological Society in 2021, an alternative case was made that will avoid the unfortunate potential for rapid warming caused by eliminating aerosols, which are currently helping to cool the world by as much as 1.8 degF (1 degC). It will allow us to safely remove powerful greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and lock CO2 safely under forests home to an abundance of wildlife. As an added bonus, it won't require the action of governments and it can buy us a lot of time while we continue to pressure our elected leaders to act.

The author, Dr. Sailesh Rao, terms the two industries destroying life on Earth as the Burning Machine (fossil fuel industry) and the Killing Machine (animal agriculture). We have long been told that the former is leading us down the path to catastrophe and that we must focus all our attention here. Dr. Rao points out the danger in this thinking. He builds on the previous work of Goodland and Anhang who, while working for WorldWatch, published a report in 2009 claiming that animal agriculture was responsible for 51% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This report was based on the Food & Agriculture Organization's Livestock's Long Shadow report in 2006, which found that the Killing Machine was responsible for 18% of emissions.

In the FAO report, the researchers stated that CO2 from animal agriculture amounted to 7.5 Gt of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e). Goodland and Anhang found that the FAO had completely overlooked respiration by livestock, which they say amounted to 13.7% of CO2 emissions. They based this on the 2005 research of British physicist Alan Calverd who had estimated livestock respiration to be 21% of total manmade CO2 emissions. Crucially, the FAO had ignored respiration entirely on the false belief that livestock are part of a "rapidly cycling biological system" and they even stated that the continued growth of livestock populations "could be considered a carbon sequestration process."

What the FAO was saying is that as livestock were consuming plants that had absorbed CO2 and that the CO2 emitted was roughly equal to that absorbed, their CO2 shouldn't be counted under the Kyoto Protocol. Now, on the surface this might sound plausible but when you consider that cows only exist because we artificially inseminate and breed them for human use, they are no more natural than the smokestack at a coal-fired powerplant. Additionally, we have cut down 46% of trees since human civilization began, so the planet's ability to absorb CO2 has been greatly diminished at a time when factories are filling the atmosphere with CO2 and 1.5 billion cows graze the Earth.

The FAO's argument that livestock are a carbon sink is even more absurd. Even if we take their argument at face value then the amount of carbon stored in livestock is marginal compared to the carbon lost to deforestation. Each cow requires around a hectare of land and each hectare of rainforest stores 200 tons of carbon above ground. After burning, the newly converted hectare now stores just 8 tons. After grazing, the soil can release another 200 tons in a short period. When this land use change is accounted for, a further 4.2% of GHG emissions are added to the Killing Machine's carbon footprint.

These are not the only errors in the FAO report. Recently, cows have gained attention for their methane belching, and livestock are indeed the largest producer of methane with 37% of the total worldwide output. Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, recently said that "cutting methane is our best and probably last hope to keep the planet safe." This is because, whereas methane only stays in the atmosphere for 10-12 years before converting to CO2, it is widely regarded as having a global warming potential (GWP) of 25 times that of CO2 when based on a 100-year timeframe. Due to its short-lived but potent climate impact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) supports using a 20-year timeframe for methane, and when this is adopted the GWP of methane becomes 72. The FAO was using an outdated timeframe and had overlooked 5 GtCO2e, which accounts for 8.7% of total human CO2e emissions. The FAO had overlooked and misallocated several other categories that, when accounted for, raised the carbon footprint of animal agriculture to 51% of GHG emissions.

It is hardly surprising that the FAO has been playing down the impact of animal agriculture as the International Dairy Federation, the International Meat Secretariat and the International Poultry Council, among others, are donors to the organization. As Upton Sinclair once said: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." In response to the WorldWatch report, after partnering with the industry in 2013, the FAO revised the contribution of animal agriculture, not up, but down from 18% to 14.5%.

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Figure 1 Carbon storage in permafrost, land, ocean, fossil reserves and the atmosphere in 1750 (white text) and the changes due to human activities since then (black text).

The new report from Dr. Sailesh Rao specifically focused on the ability of forests and the soil under our feet to absorb carbon. Whereas the FAO completely ignored the potential of land to sequester CO2 and the WorldWatch report only included the sequestration potential of trees above land, Dr. Rao included the potential for soil sequestration, which is roughly three times that of vegetation and animals. His paper states that fossil fuel burning has emitted 365 GtC (1,339 GtCO2) into the atmosphere while 164 GtC (602 GtCO2) has been displaced from plants and the soil (Figure 1). Of this, 240 GtC (881 GtCO2) has remained in the atmosphere with the rest being absorbed by vegetation and the oceans. The non-ice-covered parts of Earth store 2,470 GtC over 130 million km2. This amounts to 19,000 tons per km2. Land given over to grazing amounts to 37% of this total (Figure 2) and only stores 53 GtC (6% of the global average). Simply allowing this grazing land to revert to its original biome would sequester an astonishing 34.5 GtCO2 annually. When you include this carbon opportunity cost to WorldWatch's total, animal agriculture is now responsible for an eye-watering 55.6 GtCO2 and this is an even more astonishing 87% of global emissions.

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Figure 2 How the ice-free land area of the planet is distributed for different uses. Please note that pristine forests constitute just 9%, while Animal Grazing occurs on 37% of the land area. Data Source: 2019 IPCC Special Report. Figure courtesy: Rebecca Allen, Climate Healers.

According to those in power, we need technology, specifically direct air capture, to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. At present this technology costs $600 per ton and will take decades to scale up. As humans are emitting tens of billions of tons per year, the cost would be exorbitant and we are going to reach the landmark temperature rise of 2.7 degF (1.5 degC) by 2032. Even if successful, we would still be losing nature at an incredible rate. Populations of vertebrate animals (mammals, birds and fish) declined by 52% from 1970 to 2010 and then by 2016 the decline had accelerated to 68%. If this trend continues, how long will it be before we straddle the Earth alone with only farmed animals and cats and dogs as company? With 60% of these losses due to land clearing for animal agriculture, and 87% of our emissions potentially coming from this devastating and brutal industry, it is clear that we need to stop eating animals if we wish to continue with the human project.

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Figure 3 The climate bathtub challenge:

The solution to the climate and biodiversity crises is about more than the energy we use to power our economy. It's about the energy we use to power our bodies. Of course, there would be no point in changing our diets if we still bred animals for their skins, secretions or entertainment, so the inconvenient truth for our species is that we need to adopt vegan lifestyles as a matter of urgency. By doing this we can allow nature to do what it does best, thus unblocking the "carbon bathtub" we are about to drown in (Figure 3), and then we can dial down our fossil fuel emissions by 11.5% per year, avoid any warming caused by disappearing aerosols and reach carbon zero before we hit 2.7 degF (1.5 degC) in 2032. The best part is that we don't need technology, it won't cost us a penny, it will improve our health and save lives, and we don't need to wait for our leaders to act. We can do it ourselves, today. This is the grassroots approach, and it begins with each and every one of us. Our future is still in our hands and whether we use them for killing or nurturing life will likely decide our fate.

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