Livestock Climate’s Forgotten Sector–A Review

Chatham House Research Paper

Rob Bailey, Antony Froggatt and Laura Wellesley

Energy, Environment and Resources | December 2014

SUMMARY: This new research paper describes many of the findings that have been in other recent reports such as the UN Livestock’s Long Shadow

World Watch’s comprehensive report Livestock and Climate Change

The basic message is that livestock is a major contributor to Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG), is one of the easiest emissions to cut. However, unless there are efforts to reduce livestock production, GHG from this sector is likely to grow ever greater due to increasing meat and dairy consumption around the globe.

This paper also concludes that livestock production is a major reason in deforestation, water pollution and the inefficient use of land for food production.

Consumption of meat is a significant global health problem as well and can be linked to other environmental and economic problems.  (i.e. growing grain, esp corn, for feed, and the impact of GMO grains for feed on the economic of the small ag producers.

Reduction in livestock consumption (demand side) may offers the greatest opportunity for reducing GHG emissions. Yet most environmental groups avoid even discussing the role of livestock in global climate change, even though they may have well publicized campaigns to reduce GHG emissions from other sources (XL pipeline for instance).

Below are  some of the pertinent quotes from the paper, but anyone really interested in this topic should read the entire paper. Since one of the paper’s conclusions is that information about livestock’s impact on the environment (in all ways not just GHG) is not widely disseminated, it would be good if you could distribute to others whom you think might appreciate this overview.

If you are interested in the sources and citations, go to the original paper.


Greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector are estimated to account for 14.5 per cent of the global total, more than direct emissions from the transport sector.

Even with ambitious supply side action to cut the emissions intensity of livestock production, rising global demand for meat and dairy produce means emissions will continue to rise.

Recent analyses have shown that it is unlikely global temperature rises can be kept below two degrees Celsius without a shift in global meat and dairy consumption.

Reducing demand for animal products could also significantly reduce mitigation costs in nonagricultural sectors by increasing their available carbon budget


Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with their production are estimated to account for over 14.5 percent of the global total. This is more than the emissions produced from powering all the world’s road vehicles, trains, ships and aeroplanes combined.1 It is considerably more than the emissions produced by the world’s largest national economy, the United States.

Demand for animal products is rising fast. By 2050, consumption of meat and dairy is expected to have risen 76 per cent and 65 per cent respectively against a 2005–07 baseline, compared with 40 percent for cereals.4

Livestock production is the largest global source of methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) –two particularly potent GHGs. products) were to continue, emissions of CH4 and N2O would more than double by 2055

Livestock production is also an important driver of deforestation and associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – both directly, as forests are cut down to provide pasture or are degraded through animal grazing, and indirectly, as rising demand for animal feed drives the expansion of cropland into forests.

Beef and dairy are the most emissions-intensive livestock products and are responsible for the most emissions, accounting for 65 per cent of the total GHGs emitted by livestock.

Average global estimates suggest that, per unit of protein, GHG emissions from beef production are around 150 times those of soy products, by volume, and even the least emissions-intensive meat products – pork and chicken – produce 20–25 times more GHGs.8

Moreover, in countries where production is largely extensive, and where natural forests are being converted into pasture or into cropland to grow feed, the emissions intensity of meat products, particularly beef, increases significantly.10


Livestock subsidies among OECD countries amounted to $53 billion in 2013.25 In the EU, cattle subsidies alone exceeded $731 million, equivalent to $190 per cow.26 This largesse is not confined to industrialized countries. In China, for example, pork subsidies exceeded $22 billion in 2012, equivalent to about $47 per pig.27


Intensive rearing of cattle on feedlots is less emissions-intensive than pasture-based grazing systems because grass-fed cows tend to produce more methane and take longer to reach slaughter weight.30


In its latest review of the scientific literature on mitigation in the agriculture sector, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that the greatest potential for emissions reduction exists on the demand side.37

This is considerably more than the estimated reductions available from supply-side mitigation of enteric fermentation, management of grazing soils, and manure storage combined. (Allan Savory are you listening?)

A study for the UK suggested that dietary GHG emissions in meat-eaters are approximately twice as high as those in vegans.40


Meat and dairy consumption has risen to unhealthy levels.44

Diets high in animal products are associated with an increased risk of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and several forms of cancer.45


Animal feed constitutes a major and growing share of crop consumption, contributing to higher international food prices with detrimental impacts on the poorest people, who tend to eat diets low in animal products and high in cereals.49

A quarter of all crops grown is fed to animals, representing half of all protein and over one-third of all calories produced.50

It also represents a staggeringly inefficient use of resources: meat and dairy products contain only 2.6 per cent of the feed and pasture biomass fed to animals;the remaining 97.4 per cent is lost.51


Around 75 per cent of the world’s agricultural land and 23 per cent of its arable land is used to raise animals, through growing crops for animal feed and through the use of pastures as grazing land.52

Given the inefficiency of energy transfer in using crops and pasture for meat and dairy production, it would make most sense to grow staple grains and oilseeds for direct human consumption and to restrict feed ingredients to the residues and processing co-products of these crops.


Livestock production also represents an inefficient use of water. For example, global estimates indicate that, on a per kilo basis, production of beef, pork and chicken respectively uses around nine, four and three times as much water as cereals


Measured in terms of biomass, livestock are among the most preponderant animal species on Earth. The total mass of the global cattle population exceeded 130 million tonnes in 2010, considerably greater than the total human mass of 100 million tonnes.59

According to one estimate, 30 per cent of global biodiversity loss is linked to livestock production Owing to its contribution to deforestation and land conversion, overgrazing and degradation of grasslands, and desertification.


Campaigns by major environmental groups to raise awareness of meat and dairy’s climate footprint or encourage dietary change are scarce and have been relatively muted.62 In contrast, many global groups have delivered high-profile and effective campaigns on energy, transport and agricultural products such as palm oil and biofuels.


Among those willing to change their meat and/or dairy consumption, 61 per cent strongly agreed that human activities contribute to climate change. This compares with 47 per cent of those who were unwilling to change their meat consumption, and 51 per cent of those who were unwilling to change their dairy consumption.


Over twice as many respondents identified direct transport emissions as a major contributor as identified meat and dairy production (64 per cent vs 29 per cent), even though the contribution to overall emissions is almost equal between the two sectors. One-quarter of respondents overall stated that meat and dairy production contributes either little or nothing to climate change. This stands in marked contrast to only 8 per cent who believed direct emissions from transport contribute little or nothing at all.71

Respondents in Russia (6 per cent), the United States (26 per cent), Poland (28 per cent) and Japan (39 per cent) were less likely than the average (43 per cent) to consider climate change as ‘net important’ (the difference between those who found it very or fairly important and those who saw it as not very or not at all important). Respondents in Brazil (65 per cent), South Africa (57 per cent), Italy (59 per cent), India (55 per cent) and France (54 per cent) all viewed climate change as a more ‘net important’ consideration.




  1. Ken Watts Avatar
    Ken Watts

    What was the effect of 60,000,000 buffalo?

    You are making an argument to reduce wildlife also.

  2. George Wuerthner Avatar


    A couple of things, we see the number of bison thrown around with absolutely no verification. The common number cited came from an estimate by Hornaday and later extrapolated by Seton to come up with 50-60 million.

    It is about as accurate as if I were suggesting today there were two million galaxies.

    If you read a lot of historic journals and so forth you find that distribution of bison was very spotty. For instance, I am reading William Raynold’s Journey to the Yellowstone from his 1858 exploration. He travels across South Dakota, past the Black Hills and into Montana during the early part of his travels. For hundreds of miles they do not encounter a single bison. Then when they reached the Black Hills they found bison because the grass at the higher elevation was lush–and bison obviously focused on that area, as they moved into eastern Montana, bison again became spotty. That is a common observation of the bison. The idea that bison “covered” the plains from end to end is myth.

    But there are also significant differences even if the guesstimate is accurate. There are far more cattle today than even the highest estimates of bison.

    Bison were also subject o ups and downs due to climate and other factors. During the mid evil dry period, bison nearly disappeared from the Great Plains, as did the Indians for lack of food.

    And we are not clearing forest to create bison pasture or any other large ungulate except for cattle. Forest clearing is a major factor in the rise of CO2

  3. Kathleen Avatar

    “Livestock–climate’s *ignored* sector” would be a better title. Advocates for farmed animals (many of us also environmentalists) have been making these connections for years–the UN report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” is going on a decade old already. “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret” (admittedly a recent addition)addresses animal ag as
    “…the most destructive industry facing the planet today – and investigates why the world’s leading environmental organizations are too afraid to talk about it.

    “Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, and is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean “dead zones,” and virtually every other environmental ill. Yet it goes on, almost entirely unchallenged.”

    Watch trailer and purchase DVD here:

    Consumers have been thoroughly brainwashed by the powerful animal/industrial complex into believing that eating animal bodies and products is good and necessary (“Milk – it does a body good”; “Beef – it’s what’s for dinner”) and have been spoiled by easy access to what they perceive as “cheap” meat (that’s heavily subsidized by them and that’s wrecking their health and that of the planet). Schools that participate in the federal School Lunch Program are *required* to serve dairy milk. The animal/industrial complex has permeated our lives and economy. (The monster in our midst: )

    Look at how many of our revered traditions revolve around eating dead animal bodies and their products: the Easter ham, Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas milk & cookies (made with butter & eggs)for Santa, 4th of July cookouts (hotdogs, hamburgers)–the dairy industry is even attempting to make chocolate milk “the official drink of Halloween”! It’s no wonder that livestock is the ignored sector–talk about subverting your dominant paradigm!

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Kathleen, a perfect example of “out of sight, out of mind” when it comes to the treatment of factory animals. Not filmed in this country but I’m sure the same reactions would be universal:

  4. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    How do we address this major contributor to climate change? It really is another item that falls under the heading of human overpopulation.

    I don’t see how it can be fixed; will people stop eating animal products? It appears that as developing countries become more prosperous, they want more meat every day, just like Western countries. American companies, in our usual fashion, are trying to expand their markets into these areas too, for example, in areas where Western style milk and dairy didn’t exist much, if at all.

    With our world population expected to be around 10 billion by 2050, how are we going to address this? Ranchers and farmers are only going to make more money, not less – which is why I don’t put much ‘stock’ into their claims of predators affecting their livelihoods. In the old days, not only was our population much, much less – but meat was used sparingly and much more frugally used completely and not wasted, and in my view, cooking was much more creative than today in our wasteful, throwaway and assumed never-ending supply of animals to slaughter in inhumane slaughterhouses.

    I’m not totally vegan, but I have to say that we’re brainwashed thinking that only meat and milk can supply our nutritional requirements and even for rich foods – some vegan desserts are just as rich and just as much a feast for the eyes as their traditional counterparts.

  5. rork Avatar

    Words like “tax” appear only once in the article being reviewed. I’ve always been curious what changes in the price of various animal products would be if we taxed fossil fuel burning heavily (as I’ve desired for 35 years). Taxing animal products directly in proportion to their unpaid for harms seems complicated, since it’s way more than just CO2. It’s hardly necessary to consider the CO2 to know that we’d want fewer cows – just look at the land, water, crops, and fuel used, and the pollution created. When trying to make points about how unecological some animal products are, I suggest sticking to those first, rather than going straight for CO2 talking points.

    I thought the article did not do enough to compare the relative efficiencies of different animal products, though they spent a paragraph of text (but no graphs). I think they don’t do enough to compare emissions per calorie (rather than the total emissions – it makes milk look worse, just cause it’s popular, whereas on a per calorie basis dairy might be 4 times better than cow meat). Sinning is not an all or nothing thing – the degree to which cow meat is worse than pig meat is worse than chickens (etc) needs harping on. I’ve been mentioning Nat Geo’s articles about food here lately, perhaps this is the key one for today:
    In all such articles there are devils in the details of how the numbers are computed.

    1. rork Avatar

      OK here’s the recent paper that analyzes land, irrigation, CO2, and Nitrogen used to make dairy, beef, pork, poultry and eggs (and wheat, rice and potatoes) in the US, on a basis of per calorie, per gram of protein, and total, and where the provenance of the data is documented.
      I think it is free to look at now, and was the source for a few of Nat Geo’s graphs. It’s bad news for cow meat. In the article reviewed above for example, we might look at the graphs for China and conclude pigs are the big problem – but if they switched from pig meat to cow meat it would be much worse.

      Why did we adopt these special frenchy words for pig meat, cow meat, chicken meat, and deer meat in English anyway? No word for cow meat before 1066? In German it’s simple and not prettied up: schweinefleisch, etc.

  6. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    Personally, I haven’t eaten a product made from cattle, sheep or pigs for 10 years and have not missed them one bit. There are some pretty good veggie burgers and between protein powders, chicken, turkey, eggs, quinoa and wild salmon, I get high quality protein with minimal fat.

    You are what you eat and since I want to live a long quality life (and drive my sons crazy), staying away from livestock products will hopefully get me there.

    1. Yvette Avatar

      Gary, there are some good veggie meat substitutes, but those tofurky’s I bought last Saturday were inedible. LOL, big waste of money.

  7. BC Avatar

    Looks like the ice bridge to Isle Royale has already formed. Many said this would never happen again due to global warming. This makes two consecutive years. I hope some wolves make it over to save this population.

  8. monty Avatar

    Thanks for giving me the information to convince my wife that beef is toxic from all points of view!!!!


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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