Opinion Yet more United Nations analysis of the measures necessary to combat climate change has come under fire from scientists.
This time, rather than the (in)famous 2007 assessment report from the UN's International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the criticism is levelled at a 2006 report called Livestock's Long Shadow issued by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. This document states that the widespread eating of meat and dairy products is a serious threat to the environment.
According to the UN, in fact, livestock actually results in the emission of more greenhouse gases than transport does. The executive summary of Livestock's Long Shadow states that:
The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport.
This analysis has been a big factor in persuading concerned citizens around the world that going veggie is important in order to save the planet. No less an ecological expert than Sir Paul McCartney, in alliance with Dr Rajendra Pachauri of the IPCC and the European Parliament, has lately exhorted the citizens of the world to veg it up under the slogan "Less Meat = Less Heat".
Eating less meat is "as obvious as recycling or hybrid cars", McCartney told the EU parliament last December. He urged European lawmakers to "encourage, guide, inform and help people in making a relatively easy decision," and hoped that people would think of the children.
"It can be done and it should be done for our children who will inherit this planet," said Sir Paul.
But there's a big problem here, according to Californian agricultural air-quality boffin Frank Mitloehner. The UN report is based on dodgy numbers. He says that the authors of Livestock's Long Shadow calculated the livestock emissions including everything they could think of - those resulting from growing feeds, from animals' burping and farting, from the various industrial processes involved in producing and delivering meat and dairy products.
By contrast, when assessing transport they included only the greenhouse emissions from fossil fuels burned while driving, making no allowance for the huge carbon-equivalences involved in building and maintaining roads, railways, cars, trains, planes and automobiles.
It's a classic apples-and-beefsteaks comparison
"This lopsided analysis is a classical apples-and-oranges* analogy that truly confused the issue," says Mitloehner, who presented a report countering Livestock's Long Shadow at a chemistry conference in San Francisco this week.
The prof says that in the United States, the true picture is that transportation accounts for 26 per cent of greenhouse emissions and cattle and pig farming just three per cent. It makes little sense therefore for wealthy westerners to become vegans, vegetarians or partial vegetarians as a means of countering climate change, as the emissions reductions would be minimal at best.
In poor nations without much in the way of transport, farming accounts for a larger percentage of emissions, but this is a larger percentage of a low overall total. Many people in the developing world are beginning to eat more meat and dairy, a trend deplored by green activists. Mitloehner, however, argues that the populations concerned are often severely malnourished under their present diet and it would be unfair to tell them they have to stay mostly vegetarian. A better plan, he argues, would be to encourage more efficient animal farming techniques as developed in the rich world.
In summary, ecologically it makes a lot more sense to worry about poor folk getting cars and trucks and buses and trains (and factories to make them and roads and rails to drive them on) than it does to fret over them eating some meat. And stopping them having meat is even more unfair than cutting off their access to transport.
Likewise in the case of wealthy westerners, our meat eating is not a significant factor in our carbon emissions (much like our flying and our IT, in fact). It is things much less simple to do without - washing, health care, ordinary transport and industry - which are actually the main sources of CO2.
"Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries," Mitloehner says. "The developed world should focus on increasing efficient meat production in developing countries where growing populations need more nutritious food. In developing countries, we should adopt more efficient, Western-style farming practices to make more food with less greenhouse gas production."
There's a statement from the American Chemical Society here. ®