Cows vs. Coal

To reduce emissions, the usual thinking goes, we should promote alternative energy and declare war on coal. But researchers argue that policymakers are ignoring a crucial climate threat: cows.

Cows release methane as part of their digestive process, and this greenhouse gas is a major contributor to global warming. It also lingers in the atmosphere for a shorter time than carbon dioxide, which means we might be able to put the brakes on climate change more quickly if methane emissions are brought under control.

methane graph Cows vs. CoalAccording to a commentary in Nature Climate Change, domestic ruminants—methane-producing livestock that includes cows, sheep, and goats—numbered about 3.6 billion worldwide in 2011, and that figure grows by about 25 million annually. These animals generate 12 percent of the world’s anthropo-genic greenhouse gas emissions and about twice the methane emissions of coal plants. Their grazing also drives deforestation, hogs land that could be used for crops, and reduces soil and water quality.

Policymakers should push to cut back the number of ruminants, the authors say. Convincing people to eat less meat is a tough order, but countries could provide some motivation by taxing greenhouse gas emissions produced by farm animals.

—Roberta Kwok

Ripple, W.J. et al. 2014. Nature Climate Change doi:10.1038/nclimate2081.

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3 Comments

  • Eleanor Boyle, PhD March 17, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    Thank you, Roberta Kwok, for pointing out the key role in climate change played by large-scale meat production, and for directing attention to the relevant article by Professor William Ripple and colleagues. I have done extensive research on this topic, and know that livestock can be good for environments — if they are kept in small numbers appropriate to ecosystems. Meat can be good for health — if consumers eat much smaller quantities and pay more for animal products that are raised with a minimum of ecologically costly inputs and chemicals. This applies to ruminant animals but also to pigs and poultry, which contribute to climate change by eating huge swaths of agricultural output to satisfy unrealistic consumer expectations of meat at every meal. Societies can definitely address this problem — and some citizens already are, by cutting back on consumption and supporting smaller-scale, more sustainable producers. — Eleanor Boyle, PhD, Author of High Steaks: Why and How to Eat Less Meat. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xP0pYiCtL5w

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    • T. MOR April 14, 2014 at 1:59 am

      The ecological imperative with regard to reducing and remediating the effects of intensive ruminant production lies within the implementation of an anaerobic digester as an integral part of animal husbandry to contain CH⁴. CO² levels with regard to livestock production will be reduced by a least 25% if not more depending on the efficient containment of methane w/in the digestion process and it’s use. Furthermore, all by products of the digestion process create a revenue stream which potentially could be a means to enhance farming methods, reduce calorific inputs and educate farmers and industry to the benefits of following a strict cohesive ecological policy that is economically sexy. The ecological benefits of anaerobic digestion as a means to remediate our watercourses and reduce methane whilst creating revenue streams seems to me logical, prudent, and a SMART FART.©
      T. MOR

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  • John G April 9, 2014 at 6:52 am

    Yes ruminants are major producers of methane, but to write off all 3.6 billion methane-producing livestock as drivers of deforestation, hogs of land that could be used for crops, and culprits of reduced soil and water quality is, to me, over the top, and frankly, not true. Are ruminants truly the ‘drivers’ of deforestation? The way it is phrased here, it’s almost as if cows (cattle?) are the primary reason for worldwide deforestation when of course we all know there are myriad other factors driving this phenomenon. I think the author should at least point out that cattle and livestock, albeit a small percentage of them, are being used to combat desertification, and to restore landscapes. Ecologists from the Nature Conservancy contend that plants can respond positively to grazing, if managed properly (http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/08/05/209018347/ecologists-turn-to-planned-grazing-to-revive-grassland-soil). Furthermore, Allan Savory of the Savory Institute has led a world-wide campaign introducing cattle and livestock ranchers to ‘holistic management,’ where the animals are used as landscape stewards rather than seen as anathema to the environmental or conservation movement. The beauty in Savory’s work is that he promotes working with the resources we currently have – use the cattle, use the livestock, to restore a landscape. In Patagonia, the Nature Conservancy is teaming with sheep farmers to restore grasslands as well (http://magazine.nature.org/features/shear-salvation.xml). Finally, while yes livestock inhabit land that might otherwise be used as cropland, it is not entirely true. In ranching communities and regions in the United States, ranching developed because it was the only form of agriculture possible on such land. Where I live on the western slope in Colorado, crop production is limited to a very short growing season, thus ranching developed because it was far more likely to succeed. However, I do not refute the fact that ruminants are indeed producers of methane and it is necessary to examine their production from a cliamte change perspective.

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