Rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars, UN report warns

The excerpt below is from the report, dramatic data on the toll cattle are having on our climate and our future. . .

When emissions from land use and land use change are included, the livestock sector accounts for 9 per cent of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65 per cent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. Most of this comes from manure.

And it accounts for respectively 37 per cent of all human-induced methane (23 times as warming as CO2), which is largely produced by the digestive system of ruminants, and 64 per cent of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain.

Read the full news release







  1. Tristan Howard Avatar
    Tristan Howard

    This is astounding data. Now, I feel like I should try extra hard to convince my parents to stop running hobby cattle on the family property. Global warming on the hoof.

  2. thehendricksreport Avatar

    How can they blame all this on cattle? I am sure that 100 years ago there were alot more cattle around then now. I think they are looking for a scapegoat for thse countries, including the US, that are not putting any “effort” in to this.

  3. kt Avatar

    The report also discusses cattle and other grazing animals causing desertification – a process that agencies are loathe to ever mention.

    Yet, the evidence is everywhere around us in the West. In just 160 or so years, we have managed to turn lush meadows into dust bowls, and flowing streams into dry gullies.

    I would love to see someone (any hydrologists out there???) calculate how much perennial stream flows could be increased in our streams if we quit stomping headwaters into concrete and stripping them of protective plant cover, and started building up streambanks.

    To think that there are conservation groups supporting something like the Owyhee Initiative “wilderness” Bill that would ensure economic stability for public lands ranchers that are destroying our public lands! This runs counter to any credible science on western arid lands — and global warming, too. There are at least NINE MILLION COW DAYS (300,000 AUMs) on public lands in Owyhee County alone. Then, many of those cows spend the last months of their lives as methane machines in industrial feedlots getting pumped full of hormones to fatten up.

  4. Todd Ringler Avatar
    Todd Ringler

    not exactly in line with kt’s question, but the streams in Rocky Mountain National Park are actually ~50% SHORTER than they were in 1946. the cause is overgrazing (by elk). in addition to shorting the streams, the water table has dropped considerably (since elk eat all the new growth, no beavers). too many elk, too many cattle — same results.

    one thing to keep in mind about methane vs carbon dioxide is that while methane is a stronger greenhouse gas (meaning it traps more heat), methane has a significantly shorter atmospheric residence time relative to CO2. methane stays in the atmosphere for about 10 years, CO2 for about 100 years —

  5. be Avatar

    The methane residence time is similarly tricky when you consider it breaks down into carbon dioxide – and water. 10 years of methane then 100 years of CO2 all in the same emission!

  6. Matt Lewis Avatar
    Matt Lewis

    A difficult problem, since big agriculture is supporting an increasingly larger and more prosperous world population. Put simply, there are more people in the world who have enough money for steak and milk; economics takes over from there. To shed some light on comment #2 above, the US catle inventory has doubled since 100 years ago, from 50 million to 97 million to be exact (

    So what do we do? Telling our family and friends to quit raising cattle doesn’t solve much. Somebody else will just raise more animals. And there’s certainly not enough money in the cattle business to put diapers and gas collectors on every animal. With beef and dairy feedlots, manure can be processed and gases collected and used for power generation. However, pasture-based beef and dairy farms are still perceived to be more environmentally friendly (and politically acceptable) than the modern feedlot milk and beef factories. After all, what foods are Americans spending their money on? That’s right, organic and free-range, and more of it thanks to low-carb diets! And there’s no hope for containing atmosphere-polluting gases from pastures, not ever. Not that I’m pushing for the animal factories, since my fridge is full of Horizon, Stonyfield, Full Circle, and other organic products.

    Legislation alone is not the answer either. Removing livestock from all public land will just put a larger burden on private land, and further complicate environmental issues there. Or worse, it will push more of our livestock production to developing countries, where there are no enforced environmental regulations.

    Perhaps it’s time to enhance efforts to clean up livestock production. We can’t do much in pastures other than to promote better grazing practices (and on public lands, require it!), but we can retrofit feedlots and manure lagoons to collect these dangerous gases. Perhaps with some tax incentives for the feedlot owners and the companies that purchase and use these recycled gases, it could happen pretty fast. Maybe this is not a total solution, but it’s a good first step.

  7. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    The latest issue of Rolling Stone offers a unique possibility. After reading their story on hog CAFOs and especially seeing the photos, pork chops and ham don’t make my mouth water anymore.

  8. be Avatar

    The FAO documents nutrient deficiencies of feed playing a large role in disproportionatelly large production of enteric fermentation -which leads to methane. Perhaps the by-products of an innefficient ag industry are taking their toll as well. Better quality feed with the retro-fitted methane-burning generators may help somewhat.

    Ultimately perhaps a “pay for pollution” carbon/carbon equivalency tax will ‘help’ industry incorporate these externality costs (or the upgrades and better feed efficiency standards necessary to avoid said costs) – which are currently avoided (thanks tax-payer!) with undue subsidies – into a market cost which better represents the actual cost of production.

    That way producers will have incentive to reduce costs in an environmentally friendly way and those consumers who choose not to eat steak will not be forced to pay for it anyway (environmentally or economically).

  9. Matt Lewis Avatar
    Matt Lewis

    Haven’t seen the Rolling Stone article, but I’ve visited a number of CAFO’s in my time – pork, poultry, dairy, and beef. Those images are why I buy organic whenever I can!

    Also, great idea about the carbon/carbon equivalency tax. I’ve actually been helping to get a carbon and nutrient trading program going here in Virginia. Grain farmers here are beginning to adopt new techniques to increase soil carbon and reduce nutrient leaching. We’re working to establish a pilot project to see if industry polluters would be willing to pay farmers to trap carbon as a lower-cost alternative to upgrading factories. We’re hoping it will generate some extra income for environmentally-minded farmers without taxpayers footing the bill. We’ll see if it works. It certainly has some short-term potential, but I think all involved want big industry to clean up their act, even the farmers who would benefit from the trading program.

  10. Aziliz Avatar

    Not to naysay anything said here as methane from cows and their destructiveness to vegetation is obviously a big problem (I eat half vegetarian meals and eat more poultry and fish than red meat 🙂 but an interesting thing happened in Victoria, Australia. We had a ‘high country’ section of the cattle industry that ran their cows through our pristine ‘bush’ (Australian for forest) areas. A big campaign against their ecological destruction resulted in the denial of access to the cows to these areas.

    The result? Two seasons of the biggest bushfires in over one hundred years–a third of the state burnt. Now that produces methane as well and destroys habitat. So now they have let the cows back in.

    As I said I don’t think this applies in all situations but as Victoria, Australia is the most fire prone place in the world they are stuck between a rock and a hard place trying to make the right decision here.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

Ralph Maughan