Most climate change campaigners focus on the fossil fuel sector.
While it’s essential that we move away from fossil fuels if we’re to avoid an ongoing climate catastrophe, we must also move away from animal agriculture.
The concept of the electric cow aims at providing some context to livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions by comparing such emissions to those of: (a) electricity generated by fossil fuels; and (b) aluminium smelting, the end product of which is known within the industry as “congealed electricity” due to its enormous energy requirements.
Here are some questions from the slideshow that’s included below:
“If cows ran on electricity, how much would we use in order to satisfy a nation’s demand for meat?”
“Specifically, what figure would we arrive at if it was based on their current level of greenhouse gas emissions?”
The answer is that, if cows and other farm animals ran on electricity instead of food, water and oxygen, and greenhouse gas emissions were used to measure usage, then our current level of electricity generation would be insufficient to supply Australia’s current food mix, even if we ceased using electricity for other purposes.
That’s in a country that relies primarily on coal-fired power and is one of the highest per capita emitters in the developed world.
If your daily food intake includes a 200 gram steak (less than half a pound) from a grass-fed cow, you may be generating around 60 kilograms of greenhouse gas. If you replace the steak with (for example) kidney beans, tofu and soy nuts (dried soy beans), you’ll get plenty of protein and produce less than 3 kilograms of greenhouse gas.
While it’s true that carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels will remain in the atmosphere for much longer than methane belched by cows and sheep, methane’s shorter-term impacts can become long-term to the extent that they contribute to us reaching climate change tipping points with catastrophic and irreversible consequences.
Land clearing is also a critical factor, resulting largely from livestock’s inherent and gross inefficiency as a food source, with the need to use far more resources, including land, than would be required if we generally adopted a plant-based diet.
Here’s the slideshow, followed by some details on Australia’s livestock-related methane emissions compared to those from its electricity generation.
Nearly 90 per cent of Australia’s electricity is generated from traditional fossil fuels, with 69 per cent from coal and 19 per cent from natural gas. [i] To provide some context, in terms of gross domestic product, Australia’s economy was ranked number 12 of 214 nations by The World Bank as at 8th May, 2014.[ii]
Figure 1: Australian electricity generation, by fuel type
Applying a 100-year “global warming potential” (GWP), Australia’s 2012 National Greenhouse Inventory reported 57.9 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent (CO2-e) methane emissions from livestock production.[iii] Assuming that 57 per cent of savanna burning was livestock related (the figure utilised in a 2003 report commissioned by the Australian Greenhouse Office), the figure increases to 62.7 megatonnes.[iv] That equates to 215 megatonnes of CO2-e emissions using a 20-year GWP, which is more than the emissions from all electricity generation.[v] A similar approach was utilised in a 2007 article in Australasian Science titled “Meat’s Carbon Hoofprint”.[vi]
I have used the IPCC’s 20-year GWP for methane of 86 (including climate carbon feedbacks). That is a conservative figure relative to NASA’s estimate of 105.
Figure 2: Kilotonnes (gigagrams) of greenhouse gas emissions from electricity production and methane-related emissions from livestock (20-year GWP for methane)
The analysis shows that, even before allowing for factors such as land-clearing and nitrous oxide emissions from manure management, the emissions from animal agriculture in Australia are more than those from electricity generation, most of which is coal-fired.
This is post was updated on 9th July, 2014 and 15th October, 2015. The 2015 update comprised the inclusion of the material under “Further details”.
[i] Australian Government, Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics, “2013 Australian Energy Update”, Fig. 3 Australian electricity generation, by fuel type, p. 10, and Table 8, page 11, http://www.bree.gov.au/sites/bree.gov.au/files/files//publications/aes/2013-australian-energy-statistics.pdf and http://www.bree.gov.au/publications/australian-energy-statistics
[ii] The World Bank, GDP Ranking, 8th May, 2014, http://data.worldbank.org/data-catalog/GDP-ranking-table
[iii] Australian Government, Dept of the Environment, “National Inventory Report 2012 Volume 1”, Table 6.1 Agriculture sector CO2-e emissions, 2012, p. 257, http://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/6b894230-f15f-4a69-a50c-5577fecc8bc2/files/national-inventory-report-2012-vol1.pdf (The precise figure is 57.892 tonnes.)
[iv] George Wilkenfeld & Associates Pty Ltd and Energy Strategies, National Greenhouse Gas Inventory 1990, 1995, 1999, End Use Allocation of Emissions Report to the Australian Greenhouse Office, 2003, Volume 1, Table 5.2, p. 83
[v] Australian Government, Dept of the Environment, op. cit., Figure 3.2: CO2-e emissions from electricity generation by fossil fuels, 1990–2012, p. 50.
Plug © Antonio Mirabile | Dreamstime.com
Cow © Pavelmidi1968 | Dreamstime.com