Meat’s math problem is exacerbating the climate crisis

There’s broad agreement that a climate catastrophe is unavoidable unless we cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly. The transportation and energy emissions that contribute to the climate crisis are going down, but emissions from agriculture are increasing.

One of the biggest culprits? Production of meat and dairy.

Fertilizing feed for animals produces nitrous oxide emissions, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, or CO2. When animals eat this feed and produce manure, it generates methane emissions, which are 80 times more powerful than CO2. Plowing up grassland and forest to grow feed for animals also releases carbon from soil into the atmosphere.

U.S. agriculture accounts for about 10 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. When emissions from producing fertilizer to grow animal feed are factored in, agriculture’s share of emissions is even higher.

As emissions from energy and transportation continue to fall in response to new policies, and emissions from fertilizer and animals grow to meeting rising protein demand, meat’s contribution to the climate crisis steadily increases.

Since 2000, emissions from other sectors, such as transportation and energy, have fallen by 2 percent and 30 percent, respectively. By contrast, emissions from agriculture have gone up 12 percent. And meat production is responsible for much of that increase.

By 2050, greenhouse gas emissions from animals and producing their feed could easily account for one-third of U.S. emissions, even as other sectors strive to reduce their contributions.

That’s one math problem for meat.

Incentives alone won’t solve the problem

It’s good news that the Build Back Better bill passed by the House of Representatives this month provides $28 billion in incentives for farmers to adopt practices that reduce emissions. This investment is historic in size – the largest since the Dust Bowl – as is the focus on climate.

But simply providing farmers with more financial incentives to try reducing their greenhouse gas emissions won’t do much to change meat’s bad math.

The facts are inescapable: If global protein demand doubles, as some predict, and most of that demand is met by animal proteins produced here and abroad, incentives alone will likely do little to change the upward trajectory of emissions linked to meat.

If we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, scientists have calculated that global emissions from agriculture would still cause us to blow past the goals we’ve set to avoid the most catastrophic effects of the climate crisis. So even if we switch to electric vehicles, make buildings more energy efficient, and power our homes and businesses with renewable energy, we will still face a climate catastrophe, thanks in part to agriculture.

Animals already account for almost 30 percent of America’s methane emissions, the largest share. As other sources of methane emissions drop – for example, by fixing leaky natural gas pipelines – agriculture’s share of methane emissions will grow.

Although total methane emissions have decreased 18 percent since 1990, methane emissions from agriculture have increased by more than 16 percent.

More bad math.

An alternative protein answer

In the best-case scenario, in which all farmers adopt all of the best practices, emissions of nitrous oxide and methane could be reduced. Even if legislators summoned the courage to require farmers to do so – which is unlikely – expected increases in demand for protein will offset those gains. So unless we meet some of the anticipated demand for protein with alternatives such as sustainable seafood and plant-based proteins, we are in real trouble.

The good news is that demand for alternative proteins is growing, especially among consumers who are not vegetarians and vegans. More meat-eaters are occasionally choosing fish and plant proteins, which can help cut emissions. That doesn’t mean they are rejecting meat altogether. If enough consumers change their diets to reduce beef and chicken, meat’s bad math looks much better.

No wonder big meat companies are investing in protein alternatives.

Of course, beef alternatives provide other benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease, reduced pressure on life-saving antibiotics, and cleaner air and water in rural communities devastated by animal agriculture. 

It’s not such a surprise that diplomats in Scotland dined on sirloin steaks during recent international climate talks, while debating new emissions reduction pledges. What is surprising is that agricultural policies – and the industry’s harmful emissions – were not on the menu.

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