Automobiles generate 13 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. Discussions of global warming tend to focus heavily on their contribution. We tout the improved gas economy of our hybrids and pour development money into electric cars and vehicles fueled with bio-diesels. We talk about alternatives to driving and call for better public transit and more bicycle lanes. What we rarely discuss is cows.
Cows get little attention in the global warming debate despite contributing 18 percent of greenhouse gases. With cows a more significant contributor than cars to global warming, do you wonder why cows don’t get more attention?
While logic dictates that humans would turn to meat-free, and particularly beef-free, diets to combat global warming, that isn’t close to happening. It’s long been true that when affluence levels rise, meat consumption rises with it. And global meat and milk production are expected to double by 2050, according to a 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow-Environmental Issues and Options.”
So with cows not only a substantial but a growing part of the problem, why are governments fixated on cars when discussing climate change? Why wasn’t the word “cow” in the Kyoto Protocol?
By the time of the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, cows did make the climate change discussion agenda. But the cow discussion was about what is politely called cow emissions. Among other developments, the USDA committed to spending $90 million on cow emission research.
Cow emissions of methane are important to global warming because methane has 20 percent greater heat-trapping capacity than carbon dioxide. But reducing cow methane emissions alone won’t fix the cow contribution to global warming. Livestock farming is responsible for 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, due mainly to manure. Nitrous oxide has 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. In total, the production of 2.2 lbs. of beef unleashes 76.28 lbs. of greenhouse gases. Production of other meats also contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions, but not as substantially.
What would reduce all of these emissions? The #1 change humans could make to reduce these emissions is dietary changes. Vegetarianism or even drastic cutbacks in meat consumption is one of the most rational steps humans could take to reduce global warming.
This is not news to people familiar with the costs of livestock farming and the benefits of vegetarian diets. As one of the great thinkers of the 20th century Albert Einstein once said, “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”