Livestock ‘overlooked’ in climate talks, says World Bank


Greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the lifecycle and supply chain of animals raised for food account for 51% of annual emissions caused by humans and should be given higher priority in global efforts to fight climate change, World Bank Group experts argue. 

While livestock are already known to contribute to GHG emissions, their levels have been underestimated or simply overlooked, former and current World Bank environmental experts Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang argue in a paper published in the November issue of World Watch Magazine

The authors recognise that the 51% figure put forward “is a strong claim that requires strong evidence,” but stress that if their argument is right, “it implies that replacing livestock products with better alternatives” would have far more rapid effects on the climate than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.

This partly due to significant reductions in the amount of methane, produced by enteric fermentation from cattle. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, 37% of human-induced methane comes from livestock. Although methane produced by enteric fermentation from cattle warms the atmosphere much more strongly than CO2, its half-life in the atmosphere is only about eight years, compared to at least 100 years for CO2. 

Livestock ‘underestimated and overlooked’ source of emissions

Reviewing the direct and indirect sources of GHG emissions from livestock, the authors argue that contribution of livestock respiration to global CO2 emissions is being underestimated. “Livestock (like automobiles) are a human invention and convenience, not part of pre-human times, and a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe,” they state. 

Another major source of emissions that is overlooked is livestock-related deforestation, the report finds, meaning conversion of natural forest and particularly rainforest into grassland. While rainforest stores “at least 200 tons of carbon per hectare,” the tonnage stored by grassland is only eight, the authors say, adding that another 200 tons per hectare of CO2 may be released from the soil beneath.

Furthermore, current estimates exclude farmed fish from the definition of livestock and neglect to calculate the contribution of several other indirect sources of emissions. These include fluorocarbons needed for cooling livestock products, “carbon-intensive medical treatment” of zoonotic illnesses and disposal of by-products, such as leather, feathers, skins and fur, and their packaging. 

Food, water crisis

The authors argue that action to replace livestock products would not only achieve swift GHG emission reductions but would also help ease the global food crisis, as more calories can be produced directly from crops rather than feeding them to livestock. 

They also believe alternative products would help ease the global water crisis, as water necessary for livestock production would be freed up.


The paper suggests that a 25% reduction in livestock products worldwide could be achieved by 2017, contributing to a 12.5% reduction in global GHG emissions. The authors note that this is “almost as much reduction as is generally expected to be negotiated in Copenhagen,” the United Nations’ climate conference in December 2009.

Ways forward to reduce livestock products and related GHGs include the imposition of carbon taxes by governments “despite opposition from the livestock industry,” the authors advance. Such measures, they argue, would push industry and investors to look for market alternatives to livestock products “that taste similar, but are easier to cook, less expensive and healthier,” such as soy and seitan (wheat gluten), which are both sources of protein.

The European Natural Soyfood Manufacturers’ Association (ENSA) stresses that vegetal alternatives can help reduce meat consumption while preserving the environment, and suggests that each European opt for at least one day a week for a non-animal-based food.

Guidelines for climate friendly food choices

Earlier this year, Swedish National Food Administration and the country’s Environmental Protection Agency published guidelines for climate-friendly food choices (EURACTIV 22/06/09) . 

The guidelines cover meat, fish, seafood, fruits, berries, starches, fats and even water. Recommendations range from eating seasonal, locally-produced fruits, vegetables and berries, avoiding bottled water, soda and palm oil and limiting rice consumption as its cultivation produces methane. 

The Swedish authorities are the first in Europe to develop such recommendations, which they hope will be a source of inspiration to other EU countries.

In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) estimated that 18% of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, pigs and poultry. 

A recent report by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre shows that meat and dairy products contribute on average 24% to the environmental impact of total final consumption in the EU 27, while constituting only 6% of the economic value.

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