European University Institute - Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies

Livestock and climate change: Rethinking the debate?

Not all meat and milk is the same: we need a more sophisticated debate on livestock and the climate, says new report

23/09/2021 | News - Research

A newly released report ‘Are livestock always bad for the planet?’ explores the faulty assumptions made on livestock’s impact on climate change, also warning that millions of people worldwide who depend on extensive livestock production, with relatively lower climate impacts, are being ignored by debates on the future of food.

Animal-source foods are vital for nutrition in low-income populations, and in places where crop production is not possible, including in many dry and mountainous parts of the world. Changes in meat and milk consumption must focus on the most climate-damaging diets, which are concentrated among a ‘consumption elite’ - often rich people in rich countries.

The report argues that current debates fail to differentiate between ways of producing livestock products, in particular:

  • High income countries make assumptions based on different areas and patterns of emission that may not correlate.
  • The impact of different greenhouse gases, with long and short lifetimes in the atmosphere, is also assessed in controversial ways. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but its presence declines quickly. By contrast, CO2 has less warming potential, but it can stay in the atmosphere permanently. This means that, for example, treating cows and cars as equivalent sources of carbon emissions is misleading in the longer term.
  • In extensive systems, livestock replace wild herbivores, which also emit greenhouse gases.

The report recommends developing practical solutions to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions including manure manage­ment, grazing mobility and strategies for carbon sequestration. This means working with livestock-keepers, drawing on local knowledge and practices. The report argues that pastoralists must be included in decisions about the future of food and in urgent debates about climate change as they are crucial in harsh and highly variable environments across the globe.

“While richer consumers should undoubtedly rethink their diets, for many people throughout the world, pastoralism can and should remain part of a low-carbon future”, said co-author Ian Scoones.

The report is based on research carried out within the European Research Council-funded PASTRES project, where our research fellow Michele Nori is involved. It is jointly published together with a range of collaborators with deep knowledge of pastoral systems across the world.

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