How bad are meat and dairy for the climate?

There are strong environmental reasons to reduce our consumption of animal products, especially due to livestock’s impact on the climate.

Because this fact has been subject to controversy, this feature drills down into the numbers and the arguments.

In our feature 'Plant vs Dairy- comparing their climate impacts', we look in particular at the climate impact of dairy milk and cheese vs plant milk and cheese, to tie in with our shopping guides.

The standard story

By the usual methods of accounting, food accounts for about a quarter of human greenhouse gas emissions. Of this, livestock constitutes about 56%, while only providing 37% of our protein and 18% of our calories. Ruminants (cows, sheep and goats) are the biggest contributors of all – they are responsible for about 80% of the livestock figure, although they only produce about 40% of all animal protein.

The reasons that animal products come out as bad for the climate are severalfold, but two of the main ones are:

  • Livestock uses huge amounts of land, both for grazing and for growing feed. Indeed, one estimate is that if we all went vegan, we could reduce the land used by agriculture by 75%. It is inherently inefficient to grow grain and soya to feed to animals and then eat the animals, rather than eating the grain and soya directly.
  • Ruminants (animals that chew the cud – mostly cows and sheep) burp large amounts of methane during the torturous process of digesting grass. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas. On the basis of this, a lot of people have started advocating that we should stop, or reduce, eating animal products for the sake of the climate.

However, this has been disputed by some who claim that animal products have been given an unduly bad rap, especially those in the farming industry.

Argument one: soil carbon and the saviour cow

One of the principle arguments concerns soil carbon. Soil carbon is below-ground plant matter from things like roots and litter from above. It’s a big deal – there is more carbon stored in this form than in the plants above the ground. The quantity varies depending on things like the vegetation on the land and on temperature (heat increases the rate of decomposition), and you can build it up by restoring degraded land, but eventually, like the above-ground carbon in a forest, it reaches a plateau level.

The claim is that grazing livestock can play a huge part in building it up. The most extreme and high-profile proponent is a man called Allan Savory.

Savory was born in Zimbabwe to British colonial parents, and he doesn’t have a glowing ecological past: as a young man he argued that elephants were causing desertification, and approximately 40,000 were slaughtered on his advice, to no benefit. However, now wracked with remorse about this, he is pushing a different idea for how to solve the problem: cows.

In 2013, Savory gave a TED talk claiming that grazing cattle can reverse desertification, sequestering so much soil carbon that they could reverse climate change and bring carbon dioxide levels back to pre-industrial levels. The talk went viral – it has now been viewed nearly seven million times.

The cow turns out to not be the saviour

Plenty of scientific analyses have been done of the issues in Savory’s talk. And the summary is: there is a grain of truth in it, but nothing remotely on the scale being claimed.

It is true that grasslands, which have huge underground root systems, can store a lot of carbon under the ground – in some areas even more than would be stored on the land, in total, if it were a forest. Grassland does not necessarily need to be grazed (in some places it is just the natural ‘climax vegetation’), but it does seem that in some situations cows can help to regenerate degraded grassland – nibbling can encourage root growth for example. However, it can also go the other way – cows can trash the land, and often do.

One huge research project looked into the issue and concluded:

“In some specific contexts, where the climate, soil, land use history, and grazing management are just right, additional carbon [through grazing] can be removed from the atmosphere and sequestered in soils. But realistic rates for this are
far below those claimed outside of the scientific literature. And only rarely can sequestration outweigh the greenhouse gas emissions from the grazing animals.”

They further concluded that, at a global level, the absolute largest possible sequestration potential from grazing management “offsets only 20-60% of annual average emissions from the grazing ruminant sector and makes a negligible dent on overall livestock emissions.”

The team responsible did a YouTube video summarising their findings, which can be seen here:

Argument two: animals, ships and packaging

A second argument often used to claim that eating food from animals isn’t really bad for the climate is that it is less important than other things, particularly how far the food has travelled.

However, again, the science doesn’t really support this. Pretty much all of the research done in the 40 years since the ‘food miles’ concept was first proposed has shown that transport is generally a small part of a food’s climate impact, compared with what the food actually is. On average, it only constitutes around 11%.

The reason is that most of it travels in huge, slow freight ocean liners, whose energy use is very low – up to 250 times less per tonne-km than trucks. In fact, even when food has come from the other side of the world, the last bit of transport, within the UK, can contribute more of the transport emissions.

The same is true of packaging – it’s not a huge contributor on the climate front. Milk cartons contribute about 5% of the carbon footprint of milk, for example, and plastic packaging contributes about 4% of the carbon footprint of pork.

That doesn’t mean that packaging doesn’t matter (for one thing, there are other environmental issues as well as climate change). But it does mean, the overwhelmingly important factor in the carbon footprint of your diet is what you actually eat.

Argument three: ‘default meat’ or ‘ecological left overs’

A third argument sometimes used is that it is possible to get some animal products without using ‘dedicated resources. This is sometimes called ‘default meat’ or ‘ecological left overs”.

For example, you can feed pigs on food waste, although it is currently illegal to do so in the UK. There is also a ‘sustainable yield’ that you can take of wild game that doesn’t use extra resources, because you’re just acting like a normal predator in the system, and if you weren’t taking it, the animals would be expending more energy competing for resources.

The problem is just that the amounts we are talking about here are small. UK post-farm food waste would be enough to make about 6 kg of pork per person per year.* We consume about 24 kg per person per year.

How much are we talking about?

Below is one academic estimate of the average carbon footprint of UK diets, calculated from food diaries.

  Tonnes of CO2eq per year
High meat eaters 2.6
Medium meat eaters 2
Low meat eaters 1.7
Fish eaters 1.43
Vegetarians 1.39
Vegans 1

According to this, going from a medium meat to a vegan diet saves about a tonne of CO2eq a year. There are some comparisons below for context:

  Tonnes of CO2eq per year
The average UK carbon footprint per person per year, including all imported goods.

(This is the mean, so it will be raised by a few very high consuming people and most people’s footprint is lower than this)

12 tonnes**

The median household’s electricity use for a year 0.8 tonnes***
One return passenger flight from London to New York 0.8 tonnes (1.6 tonnes with 'radiative forcing uplift factor')****
A return car journey from London to Edinburgh for an average petrol car 0.25 tonnes****

There is, however, a very important caveat to these figures. And that is that, like nearly all calculations of the impact of animal products, while they do include actual land conversions that took place, they do not include land ‘opportunity costs’ – what else you could theoretically do with the land in a best-case scenario for the climate.

Land can absorb carbon if you let it turn back into forest or use it to grow biomass which you can then preserve in some form (such as charcoal). In other words, it can be ‘carbon negative’.

If you do include these land ‘opportunity costs’, the impact of animal products can double (or more) because of the amount of land that livestock uses.

Conclusion

This feature has only addressed climate impacts, not things like nutrition or livelihoods.

As noted, it is possible for small amounts of animal products produced in very specific ways to be neutral or beneficial for the climate.

However, that doesn’t ultimately affect the overall picture very much, because it isn’t what we’re doing. Overall, it does seem that the climate case against consuming animal products, certainly in the quantities that we do, is really strong.

* Calculated from WRAP’s figure of 150 kg per person for 2018 UK post farm food waste, and a 24:1 conversion ratio of swill into pork, reported by Simon Fairlie in Meat: A benign extravagance, 2012.

** Calculated from total UK footprint of 784 million tonnes CO2e From “Defra – UK’s carbon footprint”, and population of 65.65 million

*** Calculated from Ofgem's Typical Domestic Consumption Values

**** Calculated from the Defra's greenhouse gas reporting: conversion factors 2019

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