Cut emissions to zero


Animal agriculture currently accounts for around 14.5% of the total GHG emissions in the world. Besides the emissions problem, there is also the issue of dairy and meat industries contributing to water shortage, especially in developing countries like India. 

Almost all nations that have committed to cutting their emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius have focused on reducing the emissions in the energy, transport, and industrial sectors. Because of this, the emissions by the livestock sector go largely ignored in policy considerations and climate negotiations. As put by the Forbes climate journalist Jeff MacMahon during the Paris Agreement negotiations, “livestock emissions were all over the menu at the Paris Climate Conference—in the form of butter, cheese, and meat—but they were nowhere to be found on the agenda.”

However, considering the sheer volume of emissions that are a by-product of factory farming, the lack of action in this sector will be disastrous for the climate. A study by an international non-profit known as GRAIN and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found that 35 of the world’s biggest meat and dairy companies neither report their emissions accurately nor have reduced emission targets for the short run.

Even if the other sectors such as energy and transport were to cut down their emissions, under a business-as-usual scenario, the emissions by the meat and dairy industry would expand to the point where it would be impossible to meet the Paris Agreement target. 

In 2011, the Food and Agricultural Organisation reported that global meat consumption would increase by 73% by 2050. According to a New York University Report, if this projection were to come true, the emissions by some meat and dairy companies could surpass that of a few fossil companies including Shell and Exxon.

However, the power that these companies yield in political circles through funding political parties and lobbying has kept them away from the scrutiny of governmental regulations. In an investigation by OpenSecrets, an American non-profit that tracks the use of money in politics, it was found that most dairy companies spent large amounts of money ($600, 000 upwards) on lobbying against laws and policies such as ‘cap-and-trade,’ the Clean Air Act and emissions reporting norms since 2000 so that their business would not be jeopardized.  

These companies have also spent billions of dollars on political campaigning. Most of these companies are situated in a handful of countries across the globe: mainly in the US, Canada, EU, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand. Besides lobbying and campaigning, the large dairy and meat emitters in these regions also fund their own academic research, with outputs that show minimal links between agricultural production and climate change. Though this does not necessarily entail that the resulting research is wrong, the academicians funded by these industries frame and manipulate their research questions in such a way that the answers will be favorable to the industry. By publishing such white papers which blur the causal link between meat production and climate change, the industrial giants also manipulate agricultural researchers, think tanks, and civil society into trusting the credibility of their research.

Since these industries are solely driven by the motive to enhance their profit, it is obvious that there will not be any effort on their part to bring down the emissions in the sector. Regulating the emissions from dairy and meat factory farms is absent from the climate policies of both developed nations like the US and countries like India where there isn’t a coherent climate policy. There are, however, measures to reduce the methane content of cow burps and gas like feeding cow seaweed. But the scalability of such programs is limited and can only go a small way in limiting emissions.

But there are two stakeholders which can actively bring down the emissions of the industry: the Government and the consumers. The Governments should regulate the emissions of the industry by imposing strict upper limits on emissions by this sector under their respective climate or air pollution acts. Countries like India where there is no explicit law to regulate greenhouse gases should introduce such laws to limit the GHG emissions by the industries. In countries like the US where there is an existent law, more stringent measures must be brought in to regulate factory farms as a serious emitter of greenhouse gases.

However, the long-term reduction of emissions in this sector can only be brought about if there is a marked shift in the consumption pattern of the people. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, over 6 billion people consume meat worldwide. As long as the consumption remains stable or if as projected by the FAO, rises, the production and related emissions will also continuously rise.  A study by the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) in association with Oxford found that an average 2,000 kcal high meat diet had 2.5 times as many GHG emissions as an average 2,000 kcal vegan diet. A New Scientist Magazine study also showed that a person can reduce their individual carbon footprint by around 60 percent by just switching to a vegan diet. Hence for sustainably reduce dairy and meat industry emissions in the long run, the consumer patterns have to shift in favor of a vegetarian or vegan diet.

However, in the short run, it is imperative for strict Governmental regulations in the sector so that the emissions from this sector do not exceed the targets set by the Paris Agreement.


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