Many scientists and world leaders believe that climate change is the most serious issue facing the whole human race. At the beginning of 2007, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that global temperatures will probably rise by between 1.8 and 4oC by the end of this century (the possible range being between 1.1 to 6.4oC)12. This may not sound like a lot but the polar ice caps are already melting and the report predicted that these temperature changes would cause rises in sea levels and increases in the number of hurricanes and tropical storms. When the sea level rises, low lying land around the world is threatened and over time things just get worse as the expanding oceans increase further thanks to the accelerated melting of ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica. Research presented at the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change (March 2009) regarding rising sea levels (which range from levels of around 50 cm to that of one metre), indicated that if emissions of greenhouse gases are not quickly and substantially reduced that even the best case scenario will hit low lying coastal areas hard, these housing one in ten humans13.
“Greenhouse gases” are so called because they act like the glass of a greenhouse, trapping heat from the sun to warm up the Earth. Most of these gases occur naturally and without them our planet would be too cold to sustain life, but the balance is a very delicate one. Modern humans are causing a massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions and with too much of these gases in the atmosphere, temperatures will rise higher and higher. The most important greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).
The atmospheric concentrations of all three have increased phenomenally in modern times. Comparing figures from 2005 with pre-industrialised levels (measured in 1750), carbon dioxide has increased from around 280 parts per million (ppm) to 379ppm, methane has increased from 715 parts per billion (ppb) to 1774ppb and nitrous oxide has increased from 270 ppb to 319 ppb12. The increase in carbon dioxide is due mostly to the use of fossil fuels and changes in the way we use land. Livestock farming contributes significantly to climate change.Stop eating meat and your “carbon footprint” will be smaller. Increases of methane and nitrous oxide, however, are primarily caused by agriculture12. Between 1970 and 2004, global emissions of these three important greenhouse gasses increased by a massive 70% (from 28.7 to 49 gigatones of CO2 equivalents). Agriculture emissions have grown by 27%12. Worldwide, farmed animals produce more greenhouse gas emissions than the world’s entire transport system7.
The emissions from livestock are due to a number of factors including enteric fermentation (digestive process) by ruminants such as cattle and sheep, manure, deforestation and desertification. Cows' flatulence, alongside animal excrement, makes the headlines due to their both being extremely damaging.
The farming of animals aso generates gaseous emissions through the manufacture of fertilzers (to grow feed crops), industrial feed production and the transportation of both live animals and their carcasses across the globe7. 9% of human-related CO2 emissions are caused by the livestock sector, mostly due to changes in land use (e.g. forests being cleared for grazing or growing animal feed7) and the use of fossil fuels for farm operations14 . Methane has around 25 times the global warming impact of CO27 and ruminant mammals (cows and sheep) are responsible for 37% of the total methane generated by human activity.
There are approximately 1.38 billion cattle and 1.07 billion sheep on the planet2 which is a phenomenal amount when you consider a single cow can produce as much as 500 litres of methane per day15. Nitrous oxide is almost 300 times as damaging to the climate as carbon dioxide with 65% of the total quantity produced by human activity coming from livestock (mostly their manure). The animals we rear for meat also account for 64% of all the ammonia we humans impose on our precious atmosphere, contributing significantly to acid rain7. In the UK, food systems contribute 19% (one fifth) of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Half of this comes from agriculture (with methane and nitrous oxide largely attributable, accounting for 87%) and the other half arising from food manufacture, retailing, transport, catering and domestic stages.
Meat and dairy produce account for around half of food’s total greenhouse gas emissions, with most of these impacts arising at the rearing stage of the animals16. The IPCC raised concerns that under conditions without a climate policy in place then global mean temperature may rise by up to 7oC compared to pre-industrial levels by the end of this century17. In 2008 the Climate Change Act came into force, the aim of which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through action in the UK and abroad by at least 80% by 2050 and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least 26% by 202018.
Lifestyle changes can reduce GHG emissions. Livestock farming contributes significantly to climate change. Stop eating meat and your “carbon footprint” will be smaller.
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