Livestock Production, Climate Change, and Human Health: Closing the Awareness Gap

Date01 December 2015
Climate Change,
and Human
Closing the
Awareness Gap
by Debra L. Donahue
Debra L. Donahue is a Professor of Law at the
University of Wyoming College of Law.
Livestock should be removed from public lands for
myriad reasons. Eliminating what is now extensive
grazing by ruminants would cut methane emissions,
with attendant benets for climate mitigation. Remov-
ing livestock from public lands also mirrors federal
nutrition policy, particularly the recommendation
to eat less red meat. Much of the degraded environ-
mental conditions on public lands and waters caused
by ruminant grazing would end, thereby enabling
improvement or even recovery. Finally, undertaking
this policy shift would make scal sense by saving tax-
payer dollars.
I. Introduction
e approximate magnitude of greenhouse gas (GHG)
emissions attributable to livestock production has been
known since publication of the U.N. Food and Agricu l-
ture Organization’s (FAO) seminal 2006 report, 
Long Shadow.1 e FAO estimated that livestock produc-
tion was responsible for 18% of global GHG emissions in
carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-eq), including 35-40% of
all anthropogenic emissions of methane (CH4), and 65%
of nitrous oxide (N2O).2 Livestock’s total contribution to
climate warming thus exceeded that of the global trans-
portation sector.3 e FAO “deliberately” chose the title
of its report “so as to help raise the attention of both the
technical and the general public to the very substantial
contribution of anima l agriculture to climate change and
air pollution, to land, soil and water degradation and to the
reduction of biodiversity.”4
Although estimates of GHG emissions attributable to
livestock vary somewhat, the “estimates of international
scientic organizations, such as the International Govern-
mental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the FAO,
are in close agreement.”5 According to the FAO’s most
1. H S  ., F  A. O.   U N-
 (FAO), L’ L S: E I 
O (2006).
2. Id. at 112, tbl. 3-12 at 113, 114, 272. e FAO considered carbon emis-
sions from livestock respiration, burning fossil fuels to produce fertilizer for
animal feed, methane release from breakdown of fertilizers and manure, land
use changes for grazing and feed production, land degradation, fossil fuel use
during feed and animal production, and fossil fuel use in production and
transport of processed and refrigerated animal products. See id. at 85-86, tbl.
3-12 at 113. “e bulk of [livestock-related] GHG emissions originate from
four main categories of processes: enteric fermentation, manure manage-
ment, feed production and energy consumption.” P J. G  .,
F  A. O.   U N, T C C
T L: A G A  E  M-
 O 20 (2013). See also William J. Ripple et al., Ruminants,
, 4 N C C 2 (2014),
doi:10.1038/nclimate2081 (reporting that about 40% of emissions are meth-
ane from enteric fermentation, manure, and rice feed; the rest are about equal
amounts of CO2 from land use change and fossil fuel use, and N2O from
fertilizer applied to feed-crops elds and manure).
3. S  ., supra note 1, at 272. Indeed, global GHG emissions
from livestock production exceeded the entire 2011 GHG emissions of the
United States. See Rob Bailey et al.,  
 4 (Chatham
House: Royal Inst. of Int’l As., Research Paper, 2014) (citing World Res.
Inst. Climate Analysis Indicators Tool, available at
4. S  ., supra note 1, at iii.
5. See Mario Herrero et al., 
, 166-67 A F. S.  T. 779,
779 (2011) (noting that estimates range from 8% to 51%). ey explained
that the variation “mainly aris[es] on how GHG emissions are allocated to
land use and land use change. Other estimates involve major deviations
from international protocols, such as estimated global warming potential of
CH4 [methane] or including respired CO2 in GHG emissions.” Id. (citing
R G  J A, W I., L 
Copyright © 2015 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.
12-2015 NEWS & ANALYSIS 45 ELR 11113
recent calculations, “GHG emissions from livestock supply
chains .. . represent 14.5 percent of all human-induced
[CO2-eq] emissions.”6 Most scientists agree that the global
share of total GHG emissions from livestock production
is in the range of 14-18%.7 Notably, livestock production
is the largest anthropogenic source of two important non-
CO2 gases, CH4, and N2O. Each of these is a potent GHG.8
“Cattle are the main contributor to the sector’s [GHG]
emissions.”9 In the United States, livestock is the number
one source of methane.10
According to the FAO, “[b]etter knowledge and grow-
ing willingness to act create a momentum to tackle climate
change with livestock.”11 To date, however, climate control
eorts have largely ignored animal agriculture. Nearly all
eorts have focused on CO2 emissions from energy and
transportation, neglecting agriculture generally and live-
stock production in particular.12 “Of the 40 developed
countries listed under Annex I of the UNFCCC [U.N.
Framework Convention on Climate Change], only Bulgaria
C C. W I  K A  C C W
P, C  C 10 (2009) (estimating GHG emissions at
51%)). According to Mario Herrero et al., the FAO used “well documented
and rigorous life cycle analyses.” Herrero et al., supra,.at 780.
6. See G  ., supra note 2, at 15.
7. See, e.g., Ripple et al., supra note 2, at 2; Philip K. ornton & Mario Her-
rero, 
53 tbl. 9 (World Bank Pol’y Res. Working Paper No. 5178, 2010); Philip
K. ornton, , 365 P.
T. R. S. 2853, 2861 (2010); Anthony J. McMichael et al., Food,
, 370 L 1253
(2007). e U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that all
of “agriculture accounted for close to 10 percent of the United States’ total
emissions in 2012,” but the “amount of methane and nitrous oxide released
by livestock manure management systems has gone up 55 percent” since
1990. See Nina Heikkinen, 
, GW, Mar. 25, 2015.
8. See, e.g., FAO,  (2015), http://www.; G  ., supra note 2,
at 15.
9. G  ., supra note 2, at 15.
10. See U.S. EPA,  ,
echange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html (last visited Sept. 18, 20015). But
see Scot M. Miller et al.,   
States, 110 P. N’ A. S. 20018, 20020, 20022 (2013) (report-
ing that EPA has underestimated methane emissions, including emissions
from both animal agriculture and oil and gas development, by a factor of
approximately 1.5). See also Ripple et al., supra note 2; National Aeronautics
& Space Admin. (NASA), U.S.           
pec ted,
methanehotspot/; Beth Gardiner, How Growth in Dairy Is Aecting the
Environment, N.Y. T, May 1, 2015, available at http://www.nytimes.
share&_r=0; Miller, supra, at 20020-21 (suggesting that ruminants and
agriculture are partly responsible for high methane levels over California).
11. G  ., supra note 2, at x.
12. See, e.g., Bailey et al., supra note 3, at 12 (noting the worldwide eorts to
reduce energy demand, but the total absence of “eorts to moderate meat
and dairy consumption”); Stefan Wirsenius et al., 
108 C C 159 (2011).
and France have established a quantitative reduction target
for livestock-related emissions.”13 Negotiations within the
UNFCCC framework on agriculture “have been dispro-
portionately slow.”14 “Livestock’s long shadow” has been
conspicuously absent from most policy discussions.
U.S. policymakers in particular seem to be in denial
concerning both the threat posed by GHG emissions from
the livestock sector, and the potential that control eorts
directed specically at these emissions hold for climate
mitigation.15 Compounding the problem, recent research
indicates that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) has drastica lly underestimated livestock-related
methane emissions.16
Incre asing nu mbers of scie ntist s are warn ing that
rest ricti ng the g lobal temperatu re inc rease to 2 ° Cel -
sius (C) above pre-indust rial levels (the state d object ive
of the internationa l com munity17) w ill not be p ossibl e
without signi fica nt nea r-term reduction of emiss ions,
particul arly meth ane, from lives tock production.18
The greate st methane re ductions can be ac complished
by cutting livesto ck, and prima rily ruminant meat,
produc tion. This is a for midable c hallenge, given the
growing human popu lation a nd risi ng globa l dema nd
13. Bailey et al., supra note 3, at 7-8.
14. See Ripple et al., supra note 2, at 4 (referring to the category of land use,
land use change, and forestry and reducing emission from deforestation and
forest degradation, and citing the UNFCC,;  G
 ., supra note 2, at 91-92. e IPCC now refers to Agriculture, Forestry,
and Other Land Use, or AFOLU. See C C 2014: M-
  C C, W G III C  
F A R   I P  C-
 C 811 (Ottmar Edenhofer et al. eds., 2014) [hereinafter IPCC
W G. III].
15. See, e.g., D. Bruce Myers Jr., Getting Serious About Greenhouse Gas Emis
, 19 No. 3 ABA A. M. C.
N. 5, 39 (Apr. 2015) (noting that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy,
in response to questioning at a U.S. House of Representatives Science Com-
mittee hearing in November 2013, denied that the Agency was considering
regulating methane from cows). But see U.S. EPA, G G M-
 P  U.S. F  A, EPA 430-R-05-006,
at 7-1 (2005) (“Changes in land-use and management practices as a result of
GHG mitigation actions can produce non-GHG environmental co-eects,
including benets to “water quality, air quality, soil quality, and biodiversity.”).
16. See Miller et al., supra note 10, at 20020, 20022 (reporting that livestock
operations across the United States have emissions approximately twice that
of recent inventories). ese workers also reported that EPA had underes-
timated methane emissions from oil and gas activities in the south-central
states by an even larger factor. Id. (citing U.S. EPA, I  U.S.
G G E  S: 1990-2011, T R
EPA 430-R-13-001 (2013)).
17. See, e.g., UNFCCC, Report of the Conference of the Parties on its 15th ses-
sion, held in Copenhagen from Dec. 7-19, 2009 (Mar. 30, 2010), available
at To limit the
global mean temperature increase to less than 2°C, GHG concentrations
must be stabilized below 450 parts per million CO2-eq. See Elke Stehfest et
al., , 95 C C 83, 84 (2009).
To achieve this, GHG emissions in 2050 will “need to be 40-80% lower
than in 2000.” Id.
18. See, e.g., Bailey et al., supra note 3, at 1, 4, 22; Ripple et al., supra note 2, at 4.
Copyright © 2015 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.

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