Reaching zero – what kind of beef is that? – George Tyler
Most of the land has to be used as carbon sinks to eliminate the huge global emissions associated with food production.
The COP26 debates often ignored the cow in the room – the greatest challenge of all. Greenhouse gases (GHG) from food and agriculture make up a third of global emissions. Success in curbing climate change depends strongly on reducing emissions from the food chain to zero. This can only happen through a change in diet, accompanied by a change in use as carbon sinks for most of the agricultural land that feeds cattle and dairy cattle.
Achieving zero emissions from all sectors except food is potentially technology capable. The replacement of fossil fuels in long-distance air and sea transport, in the production of cement clinker and in some chemical and industrial processes will be a challenge. But the associated research and development is progressing and eliminating emissions without affecting the quality of life seems technically feasible.
Volkswagen, for example, drives its huge new car carrier ships with waste and residual vegetable oils. Maersk has ordered eight giant ships with 16,000 containers each for refueling with CO2-neutral methanol. The largest electricity consumer in Colorado (electric arc furnaces at Evraz Rocky Mountain Steel) uses solar energy to produce steel. and Deutsche Bahn experiments with French hydrogen-powered locomotives and lithium-ion batteries to replace diesel.
The food chain is different, however. Fossil fuels only make up 20 percent of sector emissions. And most of the emissions from the food chain – from fertilizing crops, plowing, rice fields, animals emitting methane, and the like – can only be marginally mitigated. Improved manure management, the planting of more nitrogen-fixing legumes and the switch to green fertilizer from solar electrolysis hydrogen are promising. But burping cattle and dairy cattle alone accounts for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (with mitigation depending on exotic R&D options such as algae feed additives).
The food chain (> 26 percent) and agricultural non-food uses (> 5 percent), such as textiles, account for 31-34 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. They still account for a quarter of net emissions after adjusting for estimated emissions offsets (photosynthesis and land carbon fluxes) that trap atmospheric greenhouse gases. That 25 percent is a huge barrier to zero emissions.
The first step is to identify foods that are highly polluting – mostly animal products.
Meat is not an indispensable source of protein, as more than a billion vegetarians worldwide testify. Fish and vegetables such as peas already provide 63 percent of the world’s proteins / amino acids. Protein substitutes for milk, other dairy products and meat are rapidly gaining market acceptance.
As a protein / amino acid source, vegetables are far more environmentally friendly. These data are the scientific basis for appeals to reduce meat and milk consumption. (A side effect is to reduce the spread of bacterial resistance in humans by limiting the use of antibiotics in animals.)
However, the global net share of 25 percent of food and agriculture will not be eliminated simply by switching to low-emission food. If all consumers around the world were to eliminate beef and cow products from their diet, this would save only 9 percent of emissions.
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The gap can largely be closed with a second policy – the conversion of pastures and land that grows feed for large ruminants as carbon sinks. Cattle and cows, for example, eat about 25 pounds a day, and their land needs far exceed that of smaller ruminants – sheep (4.5 pounds / day) and goats (2-4 pounds) – as well as fish, pork, poultry and plants.
Pastures and arable land on which animal feed is grown make up 77 percent of the world’s arable land, with around three quarters of this area being devoted to cattle and cows alone. Scientists reckon that 8.1 gigatons of greenhouse gases would be bound in the next 100 years if all livestock areas returned to carbon sinks. Converting the proportion for cattle and cows alone would bind up to 6 gigatons per year, which corresponds to 12 percent of global emissions. Combined with the dietary substitution of cattle and cows by plants and poultry, this would close a large part of the emissions gap in the food chain.
It is true that the cultivation of the low-emission substitute food would increase 2-3 percentage points to arable requirements and thus to global emissions. Additional emissions reductions, however, are possible through promising agricultural research and development and cessation of deforestation in the Amazon, Indonesia and elsewhere related to cattle (cleared for pasture and forage crops). Deforestation for cattle alone contributes 3.4 percent to annual GHG emissions.
Central to this environmentally sound scenario is the elimination of most large ruminant food products from the diet; that is an environment sine qua non. At the same time, selective placement is appropriate for some meat or dairy products and for the 500 million shepherds and smallholders around the world who depend on ranching for their survival, income and wealth. In addition, religious considerations are particularly important in South Asia.
In the European Union, the reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy for 2023, just decided by the Council of the EU, are likely to reduce the size of herds. The CAP could complement these reforms with voluntary purchases of current cattle pastures to create government carbon reserves. Protective measures could include animal counts to ensure herds are shrinking. Funded by meat taxes, such land purchases would facilitate (and perhaps accelerate) the transition from livestock owners and dairy farmers to other occupations, while creating new national parks and forests.
The same concept could be adopted in the United States if resistance from Republican politicians seeking a partisan advantage through the involvement of beef and the meat and dairy industries can be overcome. The herd reduction could be facilitated by the creation of carbon reserves, funded entirely by reallocating the $ 38 billion annual federal meat and milk subsidy. In addition, displaced cattle and dairy workers could be included in President Joe Biden’s American employment plan to support otherwise former workers in the fossil fuel industry. The career transition for the combined two million workers could include training to improve re-employment, along with support from their communities.
One model is the 1977 expansion of California’s Redwood National Park, where Congress provided hefty income subsidies to displaced loggers over a period of 6 to 11 years. That model could be funded in part today by diverting the government’s $ 20 billion annual subsidy to fossil fuels.
Reducing emissions from the food chain and agriculture to zero is a major challenge for a global industry of tens of millions of workers, 500 million shepherds and shepherds, and nearly eight billion fickle consumers. Comprehensive mitigation measures are central, including moving government and World Bank subsidies from cattle to small animal husbandry. In addition, consumers need to be encouraged to eliminate large ruminants from the diet – a goal that can facilitate control and research and development on benign substitutes for beef and cows.
As COP26 and the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change make clear, inaction is not an option. Without swift reforms, the globe is sure to repeat the Pliocene era 3-5 million years ago – melted ice caps inundated the planet with a sea 25 meters higher and the resettlement of 190-630 million inundated residents.