Animal Agriculture Stockyard Factory Farm Climate Change

At the COP21 Climate Change Conference that took place in Paris from November 30 through December 12, the most prominent objective was to reach “a new international agreement on climate change, applicable to all, to keep global warming below 2°C.” Last year’s report by Chatham House, a London-based independent policy institute, stated that “consumption of meat and dairy produce is a major driver of climate change” and that it would be extremely difficult to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius without a dramatic shift in dairy and meat consumption.

The Climate Deal was finally signed on Saturday, yet it contained glaring omissions. While 195 countries pledged to pursue “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius” and gradually reduce emissions of the heat-trapping gases that are warming the planet, no acknowledgement was made of animal agriculture being responsible for over half of those emissions. The deal called for the preservation of forests, but ignored the fact that over 80 percent of deforestation in the Amazon and about 14 percent of the world’s total annual deforestation is the result of cattle ranching. Search the document‘s 31 pages and you won’t find any presence of words like “meat,” “methane,” “animals” or any mention of human eating habits.

Aerial view of a U.S. factory farm feedlot and waste lagoon. (Mishak Henner)

Aerial view of a U.S. factory farm feedlot and waste lagoon. (Mishak Henner)

Life as we know it depends on the world limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F). According to reports from the National Research Council and the World Bank, should temperatures exceed those levels, the results could be catastrophic. Potable water would become much more scarce. Many of the world’s plants and animals would be on the brink of extinction. The Arctic would continue melting, losing 30% of its annual average sea ice. Saltwater intrusion from rising seas would make some island nations uninhabitable, with others going underwater entirely.

The omission of animal agriculture at the Paris conference is particularly alarming considering that last April became the first month in recorded history where the global concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm). “The world is quickening the rate of accumulation of CO2, and has shown no signs of slowing this down. It should be a psychological tripwire for everyone,” said NASA’s global change and energy program manager Dr. Michael Gunson in a statement.

CO2 emissions — a form of greenhouse gas — are the primary accelerator of climate change. A greenhouse gas (or GHG for short) is any gas in the atmosphere which absorbs and re-emits heat, keeping the planet’s atmosphere warmer than it otherwise would be.

The United States has the highest meat consumption per capita in the world. The effect of billions of animals used in farming on producing greenhouse gasses exceeds all emissions from transportation, including airplanes. Cattle production, for example, requires a great deal of land, which leads to the destruction of forests. The trees that are burned to clear the land release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The cows produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas that causes warming. Enormous amounts of fossil fuel are used in animal agriculture, generated by everything from the production of feeds, to the transport of animals to slaughter, then processing them into meat products and transporting those by land, sea and air. Livestock is responsible for 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide.  Taxpayers unwittingly fund this destruction. The US government collects $38 billion annually in taxpayer money to subsidize the meat and dairy industries. (By contrast, fruits and vegetables get only $17 million).

Animal Agriculture Climate Change

A cow looks out from a transport truck in New Jersey en route to slaughter. (Mike Hrinewski/LAIKA)

The evidence against animal agriculture has been piling up. In 2009, the Worldwatch Institute reported that a staggering 51 percent of GHG emissions are caused by animal agriculture. Then in 2010, United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) international panel of sustainable resource management declared that a worldwide move towards a vegan diet is essential in preventing the most devastating impacts of climate change. And in its 2014 report Livestock – Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector, Chatham House implored that “shifting global demand for meat and dairy produce is central to achieving climate goals.”

A 2013 report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) showed that beef production generates 13 times the emissions of vegetable protein such as lentils and tofu, and that 20% of of the meat that is produced gets thrown away — massive amounts of carbon dioxide are generated for nothing. Furthermore, the Climactic Change journal detailed in its 2014 study that high meat eaters are responsible for over 16 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution per day, in comparison with only 6.5 pounds in vegans.

Yet, vegan meals were hard to come by at the Le Bourget Centre, where the Paris conference took place. This, in spite of the secretary general of the conference Pierre-Henri Guignard vowing to keep the conference’s carbon footprint at a minimum (estimates put it at 21,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e) and the summit’s site featuring an extensive array of emission-reducing measures — none of them involving earth-friendly dining options.

Animal Agriculture Climate Change

Five month-old pigs, nearing “market weight” (age when slaughtered) at Lehmann Brothers Farms in Illinois. (Daniel Acker/Getty)

The situation is dire — as the world’s population and purchasing power has grown, so has its meat consumption. According to the World Resources Institute, it is projected to rise dramatically in the next fifty years, particularly among the growing middle class in Asia. If humankind’s consumption of animals is not confronted head on, it will become our downfall. A study by the Glasgow University Media Group and Chatham House released a week before the Paris conference stressed that “unless strong demand growth for meat is curtailed, livestock sector emissions will increase to the point where dangerous climate change is unavoidable.”

This year, California experienced its worst drought on record. What has the largest water footprint of all the food produced in that state? Animal feed. In the US, half of all water usage goes towards producing 41 million tons of plant protein that is then fed to animals who are then killed to produce only 7 million tons of meat. Newly-released NASA satellite data showed that the world’s largest underground aquifers – a source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of people — are being depleted at alarming rates.

California’s Gov. Jerry Brown, who was in attendance at the Paris climate summit along with a large delegation, focused on the potential for climate catastrophe and made sweeping recommendations for how to address the problem. He left out any mention of the devastating impact of meat on climate change.

Chickens awaiting slaughter (Mike Hrinewski/ LAIKA).

Chickens awaiting slaughter (Mike Hrinewski/ LAIKA).

Among the few public voices to cut through the hypocrisy was director (and vegan) James Cameron, who in an op-ed piece published by Newsweek during the conference wrote, “Simply by making a conscious, ethical decision about what we put on our plates, we could quite possibly change the world.”

A vegan lifestyle has now been proven as one of the most powerfully effective solutions to curtailing climate change. With the world’s leaders failing to address the crisis of animal agriculture, it is our personal responsibility to educate and empower ourselves, disseminate information to our communities and inform people about the consequences of their eating habits. Politicians deliberately hiding the truth from the public for fear of backlash will not make the problem go away. The time for change is now.

By Julie Gueraseva

Recommended viewing: Cowspiracy, Racing Extinction, Earthlings, Virunga. For an in-depth coverage of vegan living, read or subscribe to LAIKA, printed in limited runs on recycled paper with vegetable-based inks and available in digital format.