Friends of the Earth have sent our household a postcard. It says «The meat and dairy industry produces more climate-changing emissions than all the planes, cars and lorries on the planet.» They don’t quote a study, or any other source. Just a bold assertion which, on the face it, seems implausible. Even if you eat a gargantuan 250 g of meat a day (in other words, the typical US diet; Europeans eat about half that), does that really compare to all that driving round? It also seems a little bit mean to exclude trains and ships on the “transport” side. Is the balance between transport and food really so close that those 2 modes make all the difference? In the UK, rail and water account for about 4% of the total transport energy budget, so I would hope that the question isn’t so close that adding them back in tips the scales the other way. For one thing, any reasonable quantification of errors is bound to swamp that.
I think the FoE statement is false, here’s my homework.
David MacKay stacks up the UK’s energy consumption (Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, Chapter 18, page 103), he has (per person): car 40 kWh/d, plane 30 kWh/d, food 15 kWh/d. So with 70 kWh/d (82 if we add the other transport modes) on the side of transport, and 15 kWh/d on the side of food then it does indeed seem implausible that food chain emissions would be higher. Note that we have all food production on one side, I can’t be bothered separating out meat from the rest, clearly meat forms the bulk of the energy consumption anyway. But wait…
As well as emissions related to the energy required to maintain the animals, they produce carbon-dioxide and methane all by themselves. In other words the food industry has emissions not related to its energy inputs (even if all the energy was produced sustainably, there would still be emissions). Non-energy related emissions show a weakness in David MacKay’s book; he neglects them completely. That’s okay, because his focus is Sustainable Energy, but be aware that it’s not the whole picture. Food, concrete, deforestation all have non-energy emissions. For animals I think we can neglect the CO2 emissions because the carbon originally came from the atmosphere anyway (respiration forms part of a close carbon cycle). Methane however is not negligible.
I reckon 1 kg of lamb produced between 60 g and 180 g of methane when it was walking about in the Peak District. That’s equivalent to about 2.4 kg of CO2. Let’s say I eat 100g of lamb a day. That’s (methane emissions equivalent to) emissions of 240g CO2, or about 1kWh of diesel. That’s roughly 0.1 litres; if you fill up 40 litres (about the size of my small car’s tank) every two weeks then that’s 3 litres a day. How often do you fill up? From a personal perspective, It looks like food-related methane emissions are not even close (to transport emissions).
Okay. So much for the ovine. What about the bovine, porcine, and, er, chickens? Well, I’m no veterinarian so this will take a lot of piecemeal research. Bugger that, lets go to a (competent?) summary: The UK’s Fourth National
Communication under the United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change. In 2004 UK agriculture (note: not just meat and dairy) emitted 13.8 MtC (megatonnes of carbon equivalent); transport emitted 37.4 MtC. Just what are these Friends of the Earth smoking that makes them think they can claim “The meat and dairy industry produces more climate-changing emissions than all the planes, cars and lorries on the planet” when it is so out of line with the UNFCCC GHG inventory. Is the UK really so atypical?
I suspect that what’s really happening is that the FoE are doing some clever accounting. There’s probably a little bit of double accounting (example, counting transport of feed on both sides), and I suspect some land use change. Perhaps they include chopping down ancient forest to grow soya beans for animal feed as an emission on the food change? I just don’t know, because they don’t show their homework. But I have a couple of points to make anyway. The first is that it’s not at all clear that the beef industry is too blame. If there was less demand for beef (and hence soya beans to feed the cows), then I think it’s likely that the same companies would have chopped down the same forest to grow something else. Miscanthus perhaps. The second is that while this land use change will be an emission (the UNFCCC recognises land use and land use change as a carbon source / sink), this emission occurs only once. Once the forest is cleared to grow soya, there will be no land use change emissions. So the emissions from the single land use change should be amortised over all future soya bean seasons. I think.
So FoE, how do you make the sums add up?
Appendix for the pedantic
«250g of meat a day … the typical US diet»
A quote from USDA Agriculture Factbook 2001-2002, Chapter 2, “Profiling Food Consumption in America”, http://www.usda.gov/factbook/chapter2.htm :
“In 2000, total meat consumption … reached 195 pounds … per person”. That’s 242 g per person per day (2000 was a leap year).
«rail and water account for about 4% of the total transport energy budget»
Department for Transport, TSGB Chapter 3: http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/statistics/datatablespublications/energyenvironment/
«1kg of lamb produced between 60g and 180g of methane»:
One 60 kg ewe produces about 20 litres methane a day (see below). Boned and trimmed meat is about 2/3 of the animal’s weight, so 0.5 litres / kg (boned). Lamb is generally defined as less than 12 month’s old or less than 18 month’s old for export. 360 days × 0.5 litres = 180 litres. × (the density of methane gas) 0.717 g/l = 129 g. 60 g to 180 g gives a range around this (to account for younger and older lambs, for one thing).
«one 60 kg ewe produces about 20 litres methane a day»
See Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, Volume 41, page 9A, meeting of 1981-07-17, “Methane production in lambs fed high- and low-roughage diets”. It depends on their diet: about 23 litres for high roughage; about 9 litres for low roughage. Two things: 1) when did you last see sheep being fed lucerne hay? 2) using 20 litres per day favours the FoE case anyway.
«equivalent to about 2.4 kg of CO2»
In terms of greenhouse gas warming potential, per kilo, methane is 20 times more potent than CO2. So 120 g methane equivalent to 2.4 kg CO2.