Three scientists with the Joint Global Change Research Institute, a center of the University of Maryland and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory recently published new research that shows global methane emissions from livestock are much higher than previous estimates by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2006 study. The new study, published in the journal Carbon Balance and Management, reports updated measures used to calculate livestock methane emissions.

The findings show that emissions in 2011 were 11 percent higher than previously projected estimates. The study noted that methane emissions from livestock have risen sharply in regions of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, while methane emissions declined in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

“Our diets become more meat- and dairy-rich, so the hidden climate cost of our food tends to mount up,” said professor Dave Reay from the University of Edinburgh of the study.

Despite its potency, methane is typically ignored because it accounts for a much smaller percentage of total emissions. But this particular gas has a warming potential that is significantly higher than carbon dioxide, due to methane’s ability to inflict much more damage by trapping heat in a shorter time frame. Methane traps up to 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide within a 5 year period and 72 times more within a 20 year period. In the U.S., methane emissions come primarily from industry, natural gas, and petroleum systems; and from agriculture, respiratory and digestive emissions from livestock and manure management. An important additional source is landfills. However, across the globe, it’s the agricultural sector that is more decidedly the primary source of methane emissions. With the rise of meat and dairy consumption in developing countries, the impact of industrial animal agriculture is only being more harder felt.

While this study only focuses on methane – though it is definitely worth the study – there are many more drivers of climate change, all sadly linked to the expansion of the industrial animal agriculture industry. For instance, meat and dairy products account for 23 percent of global freshwater consumption and, 45 percent of the total land use. It is also one of the largest drivers of global deforestation, as more space is needed to graze cattle and grow feed for livestock. If rates of deforestation continue, there likely won’t be any rainforests left in the next 100 years. The world’s rainforests are the lungs of the planet. Not only do trees provide us with oxygen and help to regulate climate, by influencing precipitation outputs, but they also absorb around 30 percent of human-made carbon dioxide outputs. So see how this cycle is working?

While this study may be new, the concept that the livestock system is a major driver in global climate change is absolutely not. Unfortunately, it is one of the most overlooked and underestimated sectors. In 2009, Worldwatch Institute published a study called “Livestock and Climate Change” that detailed the many (largely) unaccounted for greenhouse gas emissions that livestock contribute to our atmosphere. According to this study’s findings, livestock production is responsible for as much as 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet – the number that is most commonly shared is 14.5 percent, which is from the UN FAO’s report “Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock,” which was published in 2013. Regardless of which number is wildly accepted, industrial animal agriculture still accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector – however, when it comes to talking about ways to combat climate change, few organizations point toward reducing meat and dairy consumption.  Here at One Green Planet, we’ve been adamant on the point that global food system dominated by industrial animal agriculture is at the heart of our environmental crisis.

The good news is that you can make a difference, simply by starting with what’s on your plate. You can start eating for the planet by doing nothing more than choosing a delicious plant-based meal over one laden with animal products. If you look at it from a personal perspective, you can cut your own carbon footprint in half just by leaving meat off your plate for one year. (Plus save a lot of water, redirect grain for people to eat, and help protect endangered species…)

We all have the power to create a better future for our children, and the countless animals we share the planet with, by making one easy swap. If you’re ready to start doing this in your own life, check out One Green Planet’s #EatForThePlanet campaign.

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