Yet by 2017, greenhouse gas in our atmosphere may increase to irreversibly catastrophic levels if nothing is done to change course, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency. To prevent this, governments have called on all industries worldwide to eliminate 80 to 95 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas
emissions by 2050 (compared to 1990).
In fact, with the objective of dramatically decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, a recent article by Bill Gates prescribed replacing livestock products with vegan alternatives, citing an assessment by environmental specialists employed by UN specialized agencies other than the FAO. Those specialists are Jeff Anhang and me. According to our widely-cited assessment, at least 51 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas is attributable to the life cycle and supply chain of livestock products. This means that the only pragmatic way to reverse climate change by 2017 as needed is to replace at least 25 percent of today's livestock products with better alternatives.
In contrast, the FAO’s new report fails to use standard principles of environmental assessment. Notably, it examines risks involved in such areas as air and water pollution, and claims that those risks must be balanced with benefits available from raising livestock. Yet the FAO's assessment fails to separate livestock’s lesser risks and impacts from their greater ones, a basic task of environmental assessment. The greatest environmental risks are normally defined as those that are diverse, irreversible, and unprecedented –- which aren’t normally involved in air and water pollution, but are notably involved in climate change.
The FAO fails to recognize the urgent need to stop climate change by 2017, and for the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95 percent by 2050. Also, the FAO assesses only livestock products and fails to perform any analysis of alternatives, another basic element of environmental assessment.
Conversely, analysis by Jeff Anhang and me identifies a unique potential dual benefit of replacing a substantial amount of today’s livestock products with alternatives. That is, such replacement can both significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and free up much land to permit reforestation to provide large-scale greenhouse gas sequestration. Most land used for livestock and feed production was once forested, and could be forested again. Livestock grazing alone, not counting feed production, has been estimated by the International Livestock Research Institute to occupy 45 percent of all land on earth.
The FAO’s analysis counts no carbon dioxide from livestock respiration. Yet reality no longer reflects the old model of the carbon cycle, in which photosynthesis balanced respiration. That model was valid as long as there were roughly constant levels of respiration and photosynthesis on Earth. But in recent decades, respiration has increased exponentially with livestock production –- while intensified livestock and feed production has been accompanied by large-scale deforestation and forest-burning, huge increases in volatilization of carbon, and dramatic declines in both Earth's photosynthetic capacity, and therefore in its capacity to sequester greenhouse gas.
As a result, either carbon dioxide in livestock respiration -– or its reflection in carbon absorption forgone on land used for livestock and feed production -– should be counted as emissions.
The only way for most industries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a large scale is by using renewable energy. Yet the International Energy Agency estimates sufficient renewable energy infrastructure to stop climate change would take at least 20 years and US$18 trillion to develop. That’s because renewable energy infrastructure has long and complex product-development cycles and capital-intensive requirements.
The livestock sector is a notable exception, as most of its greenhouse gas emissions do not result from energy usage. Therefore, it is especially important to achieve a sharp and rapid greenhouse gas reduction from the livestock sector.
The objective of recent international climate treaty negotiations has been to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 13 percent by 2017. If it is true that at least 51 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas is attributable to livestock, then replacing 25 percent of today’s livestock products with alternatives by 2017 could almost fully achieve the objectives of international climate treaty negotiations. In contrast, if the FAO is right to say that 14.5 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas is attributable to livestock, then it would take replacing at least 85 percent of today’s livestock products with alternatives by 2017 to achieve the same objective.
Alternatives to livestock products are generally responsible for minimal greenhouse gas emissions. There is documented potential for agricultural change to draw down atmospheric carbon to pre-industrial revolution levels within five years, by stopping deforestation and emphasizing reforestation. Doing so while replacing a substantial amount of livestock products with better alternatives may be the only pragmatic way to stop climate change within the few years projected to remain before climate disruption becomes irreversibly catastrophic.
One of the advantages of replacing livestock products versus replacing fossil fuel infrastructure is that it is easy for any individual consumer to do the former on their own, unlike the latter. Still, to ensure that sufficient action is taken, governments should develop policies to provide incentives for replacing at least 25 percent of today’s livestock products with better alternatives by 2017.
Finally, agriculture is outdoors to a unique degree, exposing it to greater risk from emissions attributable to livestock than any other industry’s risk from the same emissions. So food industry leaders have a compelling commercial incentive to reduce these emissions. Indeed, replacing at least 25 percent of today’s livestock products with better alternatives by 2017 may be the only available business case for industry leaders to act pragmatically to stop climate change before it is too late.