Livestock's Near-Term Climate Impact and Mitigation Policy Implications

Livestock's Near-Term Climate Impact and Mitigation Policy Implications

Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop (Beyond Zero Emissions, Australia & Zero Emissions Byron, Australia) and Lauren Rickards (RMIT University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-4757-0.ch003
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Human consumption of livestock remains a marginal issue in climate change debates, partly due to the IPCC's arbitrary adoption of 100-year global warming potential framework to compare different emissions, blinding us to the significance of shorter-term emissions, namely methane. Together with the gas it reacts to form - tropospheric ozone - methane has been responsible for 37% of global warming since 1750, yet its atmospheric life is just 10 years. Neglecting its role means overlooking powerful mitigation opportunities. The chapter discusses the role of livestock, the largest anthropogenic methane source, and the need to include reduced meat consumption in climate change responses. Looking beyond the conventional focus on the consumer, we point to some underlying challenges in addressing the meat-climate relationship, including the climate science community's reluctance to adopt a short-term focus in its climate projections. Policy options are presented.
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Introduction: A Fresh Look At Livestock Production And Climate Policy

Enteric fermentation and manure from livestock are the largest source of methane (Ciais et al., 2013). Although methane is a highly significant greenhouse gas, it is marginal in mainstream climate change debates relative to CO2 because of its ill-fit with dominant CO2-centric greenhouse gas accounting methodologies. As a result, the climate change significance of livestock production – as well as other methane-producing processes such as amassing waste in landfill, fracking unconventional natural gas and burning biomass – has been under-recognised. A growing number of initiatives designed to reduce meat consumption for climate change reasons are emerging, but these are predominantly run by non-governmental organisations and remain outside of mainstream policy. What is needed, we argue in this chapter, is far greater public awareness that choosing alternative proteins over red meat could slow down global warming by more than 15 years (Bryngelsson et al., 2017).

Why has the powerful role of methane and thus meat consumption in generating near-term climate change been neglected until late? One problem is the entrenched nature of livestock production and meat consumption in society (McGregor & Houston, 2017; Smil, 2013). Despite rising public awareness of the link between livestock and climate change, interlocking factors on both the production and consumption side mean that a large-scale shift towards a lower-meat diet is proving difficult. However, as indicated above, there is a further significant reason for meat consumption’s neglect in climate change mitigation discussions: the seemingly mundane, technical question of greenhouse gas accounting protocols. Current protocols use CO2 as the “standard” and an arbitrary 100-year period to assess the global warming significance of all greenhouse gases. While pragmatic, this approach downplays the importance of short-lived gases such as methane. It frames and filters our understanding of and responses to the climate change problem away from important methane-reduction measures, obscuring the need to radically reduce meat consumption. As we argue in this chapter, however, one immediate way of helping to rectify this blind spot in the climate change mitigation portfolio is to improve greenhouse gas accounting conventions.

The chapter begins with an overview of the relationship between livestock and climate change, highlighting the growing problem of livestock-based greenhouse emissions, notably short-lived or “near-term” ones. We then turn to the neglected issue of how such emissions are under-accounted in existing greenhouse emission accounting and policies and conceal the role of livestock in climate change. To end, some specific improvements to accounting for greenhouse emissions are suggested as one of many steps needed to address the issue of livestock’s role in climate change.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Enteric Fermentation: The digestion process of multi-stomach ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, goats) that produces methane emissions.

Commodification: Turning of something which has an intrinsic value, such as natural resources, animals or human beings, into commodities. This includes treatment of sentient beings as units of production for sale, stripped of their existential value and moral worth.

Global Warming Potential (GWP): The radiative forcing (warming) of an emission relative to the radiative forcing of carbon dioxide for a given period. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) lists GWPs of all greenhouse emissions for 20, 100 and 500 year periods.

Near-Term Climate Forcers (NTCFs): Greenhouse emissions with an atmospheric lifetime of 10 years or less; used interchangeably with short-term emissions. Methane, with a lifetime of 10 years, is classified by the IPCC as both a near-term and a long-term climate forcer.

Framing: The way different understandings of the world are shaped by social factors, including language, images, equations, maps and conventions.

Mitigation: Actions directed towards reducing the impacts or severity of something. For example, climate change mitigation policy refers to policy actions to reduce the severity of impact of climate change.

Negative/Positive Feedback on Climate Change: Impacts on climate change which reduce/add to the level of global warming.

Greenhouse Gas Accounting: A way of keeping an inventory and auditing of all gases causing a greenhouse effect generated by all sources, including business activities, organisations and individuals. It can be done on the basis of consumption or production. The period of accounting for the effect, for example over 20 or 100 years, influences the outcomes in terms of the contribution of the various greenhouse gases.

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