G7 nations are ignoring the "cow in the room"—beef and dairy emissions (2024)

G7 nations are ignoring the "cow in the room"—beef and dairy emissions (1)

President Joe Biden speaks with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen during the G7 Summit in Italy. Vannicelli/IPA/ZUMA

This story was originally published byGristandis reproduced here as part of theClimate Deskcollaboration.

Last week, the leaders of the world’s seven biggest economies convened in Italy to discuss several pressing global issues during the annual gathering known as the G7 summit. Theyagreed to lend Russia’s frozen assets to Ukraine,pushed for a ceasefire in Gaza, andpledged to launch a migration coalition.

Those discussions, which concluded Saturday, came right on the heels of the annual Bonn Climate Change Conference, which sets the foundation for the United Nations’ yearly climate gathering. In Bonn, Germany, an enduring dispute over who should providetrillions of dollars in climate aidto poor nations once again ended with little progress toward a solution, dominating the agenda so much so that dialogues on other issuesoften reverted back to financial debates.

Animals raised for food generate nearly a third of the globe’s methane emissions—cutting them is among the fastest ways to curb warming.

Government heads at both conferences barely addressed what may be one of the most pressing questions the world faces: how to respond to theimmense role animal agriculture plays in driving climate change. This continues a pattern of evasion around this issue on the international stage, whichadvocates and scientistsfind increasingly frustrating, given that shrinking the emissions footprint of global livestock production and consumption is a needed step toward mitigating climate change.

“We’re seeing, essentially, the cow in the room being ignored,” said Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re seeing these kinds of vague references to needing to shift diets, but still a refusal to call out animal agriculture as the leading cause, by far, of agricultural emissions, as well as other forms of environmental destruction in food and agriculture systems.”

Although estimates vary,peer-reviewed studieshave found that the global food system is responsible for roughly one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Animals raised for consumption generate32 percent of the world’smethaneemissions, and agriculture is the largest source of anthropogenic methane pollution.

Methane is thesecond most abundant greenhouse gasafter carbon, and it’s 80 to 90 times more powerful than carbon in its first 20 years in the atmosphere. This is whymany scientists believethat aggressively curbing humanity’s methane pollution would be thefastest way to slow planetary warming. And methane isn’t the only environmental problem associated with meat and dairy. Even though animal agriculture provides 17 percent of the world’s calories, it accounts for80 percent of global agricultural land useand41 percent of global agricultural water use, which translates intoan outsize impact on biodiversity.

Despite the mountain of evidence establishing a connection between the food we eat and climate change, the subject has only recently begun to pop up at international conferences.

“We are moving in the right direction, but we are not moving fast enough. Unless we are really serious about food…I don’t see how we can fix climate change.”

The big breakthrough came at last December’s UN climate conference, COP28, where more than two-thirds of countries in attendance, including the U.S. and the European Union,pledged to take steps to reduce the colossal climate footprint of food systems. Around the same time, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, or FAO, unveiled its first-ever installment ofa roadmap for transforming the global food systemto limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

However, the FAO roadmapcame under criticismbecause its slate of proposed solutions almost entirely omitted the need to reduce human consumption of meat and dairy.Some researchers later asked the FAO to retract its report, alleging that itmisrepresented their workby minimizing reduced meat intake as a way to cut agricultural emissions.

The failure of delegates at COP28 to directly address the causal relationship between meat consumption and climate change was just repeated by G7 nations and the Bonn climate conference attendees. These failures show how “incredibly politically charged” this issue is in multinational gatherings dominated bycountries with very high rates of meat and dairy consumption, said Martin Frick, who heads up the World Food Programme’s Berlin office.

“We are moving in the right direction, but we are not moving fast enough,” said Frick. “Unless we are really serious about food, and look at it from a systems approach, ask ourselves the hard questions and give ourselves the hard answers, I don’t see how we can fix climate change.”

Still, some do see progress.

“Only six months ago, 159 governments at world-leader level made a commitment to incorporate food into their climate plans,” said Edward Davey, senior advisor of the Food and Land Use Coalition based at the World Resources Institute. The COP28 pledge includes incorporating the climate footprint of food into each country’s “nationally determined contribution,” orNDC— a specific emissions target required by theParis Agreement.

“Livestock is clearly a very good example of what wasn’t tackled directly, in the sense that there is no mention of livestock, per se.”

Countries are expected to submit new NDCs bynext February, and Davey said those updates will indicate whether those countries are taking the pledge seriously.

Until then, how the topic surfaces in international gatherings is the next best benchmark. “I wanted to see that food was genuinely getting its moment in the sun in the climate talks,” said Davey. “And I think what we saw was that the Bonn talks were largely focused on finance, and less on particular sectors.”

Food was not entirely absent from the G7 summit agenda. At the gathering in southern Italy, Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni announced the launch of the Apulia Food Systems Initiative, a climate and food policy aimed at investing in resilient food systems for poorer countries. It commits an undisclosed amount of funding to strengthen agricultural climate adaptation, withmost aid allocated across the African continent, whereclimate change is intensifyingfood insecurity. The initiative will back a US State Department-led crop research effort, a project to create more resilient coffee supply chains, and technical support for implementing the COP28 food and agriculture pledge into countries’ NDCs.

Unsurprisingly, it does not include any projects to decarbonize animal agriculture. “Livestock is clearly a very good example of what wasn’t tackled directly, in the sense that there is no mention of livestock, per se,” said Francesco Rampa, head of the think tank European Centre for Development Policy Management’s sustainable food systems team, who assisted the Italian G7 presidency in developing the initiative. Rampa is quick to add that this is because the Apulia plan is structured to help poor nations that have negligibleemissions from animal agriculture, and not higher-income countries with sizable contributions—like the G7 countries themselves.

Past G7 food initiatives havefaced criticismfor limited clarity and accountability around finance pledges, for not reaching small farmers, and for failing to facilitate a transition to more sustainable and equitable food systems in the places they aim to aid. Multiple experts told Grist they don’t expect the new Apulia pledge to buck that trend.

“I’m skeptical of the ability of the international community to act in a way, with the urgency, that this whole issue requires,” said William Dietz, director of research and policy at the Global Food Institute at George Washington University. “We’ve got a generation of leaders like Nero who are fiddling while the world is burning.”

G7 nations are ignoring the "cow in the room"—beef and dairy emissions (2024)

FAQs

Why are cows bad for the environment? ›

Cattle are frequently cited as having the most severe overall environmental impacts among livestock species due to: methane and nitrous oxide released from digestion and manure; land use and conversion; desertification; inefficient ratio of weight of feed and water consumed to weight of meat and dairy produced; ...

What is the CO2 emission of a cow? ›

That's equivalent to the carbon emissions released by the annual electricity usage of two homes. In comparison, conventional cattle production sequesters 2.9 tons of CO2e per year—equal to the emissions released from a gas-powered car driving some 6,700 miles.

How does livestock contribute to greenhouse gas emissions? ›

Livestock, especially ruminants such as cattle, produce methane (CH4) as part of their normal digestive processes. This process is called enteric fermentation, and it represents over a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions from the Agriculture sector.

What are the biggest contributors to carbon emissions? ›

Fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – are by far the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions. As greenhouse gas emissions blanket the Earth, they trap the sun's heat.

Which is worse for the environment cows or chickens? ›

Bigger animals — cows, pigs, and lambs — emit more greenhouse gases but produce much more meat per animal. Chicken and fish might have a low carbon footprint but are killed in much higher numbers. The consequence is that many more smaller animals — chickens and fish — are slaughtered.

Why is beef the worst food for the climate? ›

Methane disperses or breaks down faster than carbon dioxide, but it also does more damage while it's here. Cows, because of their distinct biology, produce a lot of this dangerous methane when they digest their food. A single cow can produce up to 500 liters of methane a day.

Do cow burps produce methane? ›

A single cow can produce up to 500 liters of methane a day, or 160 kilograms per year, mostly through eructation (that is, belching). Multiply that by the planet's 1.4 billion cattle, and it might be a burp, not a butterfly wing, that causes a hurricane on the other side of the world.

Do grass-fed cows produce less methane? ›

Cattle release this methane primarily by belching, though also to a lesser extent through flatulence. Studies have shown that grass-fed cattle produce 20% more methane in their lifetime than grain-fed cattle. This is due to two different factors: 1) cattle naturally emit more methane when digesting grass.

Can cow methane be used as fuel? ›

Most digesters are in dairies that capture methane from lagoons of cow manure and turn it into biofuel. Liquified cow manure commonly is stored in a covered digester where microbes from the animals' digestive systems produce gas.

Who is the world's largest polluter by percentage? ›

China was the largest climate polluter, making up nearly 30% of global emissions. top 20 global climate polluters — dominated by China, India, the United States and the European Union — were responsible for 83% of emissions in 2022.

Is methane worse than CO2? ›

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere. Even though CO2 has a longer-lasting effect, methane sets the pace for warming in the near term.

What animal produces the most methane? ›

Cattle are the No. 1 agricultural source of greenhouse gases worldwide. Each year, a single cow will belch about 220 pounds of methane.

Which country has the worst CO2 emissions? ›

China has the largest CO 2 emissions in the world, but also the largest population. Some argue that for a fair comparison, emissions should be analyzed in terms of the amount of CO 2 per capita.

What country pollutes the most? ›

Most polluted country and region ranking based on annual average PM2.5 concentration (μg/m³)
RankCountry/Region2021
1Bangladesh76.9
2Pakistan66.8
3India58.1
4Tajikistan59.4
46 more rows

What is the most polluting company in the world? ›

Greenhouse 100 Polluters Index (2023 Report, Based on 2021 Data)
Greenhouse 100 RankParent corporation or entity2021 Emissions (CO2 equivalent metric tons)
1Vistra Energy (*)99,793,085
2Southern Company82,113,848
3Duke Energy79,435,840
4Berkshire Hathaway72,113,565
63 more rows

Why cow meat is bad for the environment? ›

Livestock production accounts for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, including 9 percent of carbon dioxide and 37 percent of methane gas emissions worldwide, according to the Livestock, Environment and Development (LEAD) Initiative, an international consortium of government and private agencies based at FAO ...

Why is cow poop bad for the environment? ›

Livestock manure contributes to short-lived climate pollutant emissions through two processes: Through storage methods, especially liquid storage, which emit large amounts of methane. Through the burning of pastureland and the use of dung as a fuel for heating and cooking, which emit black carbon.

What are the disadvantages of cattle? ›

Cattle farming is a primary driver of major environmental destruction: from deforestation of lands for cattle grazing and raising crops (which are mostly fed to livestock), to overuse of land and water, and water pollution in the form of manure and nitrogen runoff.

Are cows worse for the environment than pigs? ›

Beef production is estimated to require approximately 20 times more land and emits 11 times more greenhouse gases compared to pork production.” Livestock farming, particularly from ruminant animals like cattle, is a major source of methane emissions.

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