This interview first appeared on on 21st April, 2013 as part of’s Vegan Challenge for Earth Week 2013.

Paul Mahony, one of the founders of Melbourne Pig Save, speaks to Anita Krajnc about the vegan imperative to help solve the climate crisis.

Question: What is the link between meat, dairy and the problem of climate change? What is the ecological footprint of an average meat eater compared to a vegan?

Paul Mahony: The link involves many inter-related factors, such as livestock’s inherent inefficiency as a food source; the massive scale of the industry, including tens of billions of animals slaughtered annually; land clearing; and greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, and other warming agents.

The inherent and gross inefficiency of livestock as a food source causes us to use far more resources than would otherwise be required to obtain our nutritional requirements. In terms of land, that has resulted in the clearing of rainforest and other prime areas.

We often hear of methane (CH4) in relation to ruminant livestock. That is a critical problem, but so is CO2, due largely to the clearing of forest and other vegetation. The carbon locked in that vegetation is released as CO2, and once the vegetation is gone, we’ve lost the benefit of it drawing down carbon from the atmosphere.

A 2009 study by the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency reported that a global transition to a completely animal free diet is estimated to reduce climate change mitigation costs by around 80%. Removing just meat from the diet would reduce the costs by around 70%.

The report’s abstract states: “By using an integrated assessment model, we found a global food transition to less meat, or even a complete switch to plant-based protein food to have a dramatic effect on land use. Up to 2,700 Mha of pasture and 100 Mha of cropland could be abandoned, resulting in a large carbon uptake from regrowing vegetation. Additionally, methane and nitrous oxide emission would be reduced substantially.”

Vegans are often blamed for soy production that causes large areas of Amazon rainforest to be cleared. However, most soy production is fed to animals, including pigs in China, where their numbers exceed 500 million. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has reported that around 70 percent of land cleared in the Amazon is used for cattle grazing, while much of the remainder is used for animal feedcrops.

I tend not to think in terms of an individual’s carbon footprint. I look at the overall impact of animal agriculture. Estimates of its impact vary based on the factors that are included in any analysis. For example, Australia’s Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency conservatively estimates that livestock are responsible for around 10% of the country’s emissions. However, that figure is based solely on enteric fermentation (a process that produces methane in the digestive system of ruminant animals) and manure management. By adding livestock-related land clearing and savannah burning, and calculating methane’s impact based on a 20-year time horizon, we increase the share, on my estimates, to around 30%. The 20-year time horizon is important, because the standard approach is to use a 100-year period. Methane breaks down in the atmosphere in around 12 years, so the 100-year measurement understates its shorter-term impact more so than the 20 year approach. (Over a 100-year time horizon, methane is around 21 times as potent as CO2 in terms global warming. Over a 20-year time horizon, it’s between 72 and 105 times as potent). A 12-year measure would be even better, but does not appear to be available. That shorter-term impact is critical when we consider climate change tipping points and the urgent need to deal with the crisis.

A team at climate change campaign group, Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), has factored in the impact of tropospheric (ground level) ozone and grassland emissions. Tropospheric ozone is formed through a series of chemical reactions involving nitrogen oxide, methane, carbon monoxide and other non-methane volatile organic compounds, which are relevant to animal agriculture. BZE anticipate that their final report, expected in late 2013, will indicate that livestock are responsible for around 50% of Australia’s emissions.

Black carbon from savanna burning is another factor in livestock’s emissions, but its impact is difficult to measure, and it has not been used in BZE’s analysis. I’ve commented on BZE’s approach in this article.

In 2009, writing in World Watch magazine, the former lead environmental adviser to the World Bank, Robert Goodland and colleague Jeff Anhang, estimated that livestock were responsible for 51% of global emissions. They included many factors that had not been accounted for in the 2006 “Livestock’s Long Shadow” report from the FAO, which had indicated a figure of 18%.

One of the approaches I’ve used in an effort to add some context to livestock’s emissions, has been to compare the emissions intensity of beef to that of aluminium. (Emissions intensity is a measure of the kilograms of greenhouse gases emitted per kilogram of product.) Aluminium smelting is incredibly emissions intensive. It consumes 16% of Australia’s (mainly coal-fired) electricity, for 0.06% of jobs and 0.23% of gross domestic product.

How does beef compare? A 2003 report commissioned by the Australian Greenhouse Office estimated that beef production was 150% more emissions intensive than aluminium smelting (that is, it was 2.5 times as emissions intensive as aluminium). That analysis was based on the carcass weight of beef. Beef’s emissions intensity is even higher when you consider the smaller portions used as food. A more recent estimate, allowing for a subsequent reduction in livestock-related land clearing, but based on the final product rather than the carcass, indicates that beef is still around 50% more emissions intensive than aluminium.

Much attention has been given to a recent TED presentation by US-based Zimbabwean farmer, Allan Savory, claiming that his “holistic resource management” form of livestock farming is beneficial in terms of revegetation and climate change. Very strong objective evidence suggests otherwise. His approach may allow revegetation on a relatively small scale, subject to adequate water resources and livestock controls, but it would never be sufficient to feed the masses.

Question: What kinds of activism are occurring around these issues, and are environmental groups making this link and campaigning on vegan diets?

Paul Mahony: From my experience, many groups campaigning for animal rights also mention the environmental impact of animal agriculture. Examples include PETA, Animals Australia and the Vegan Society, UK.

Unfortunately, however, it seems to me that most climate change campaign groups say little about the impact of animal agriculture.

I have written to groups such as the Australian Greens political party, Environment Victoria and Australian Youth Climate Coalition, who have said little or nothing about the issue. Their responses (or lack of them) have been disappointing. (You can see my comments on the Greens here.)

Beyond Zero Emissions (referred to in my response to the first question) is dealing with the issue as part of its forthcoming land use plan. A key researcher involved in BZE’s work is Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop, who is also involved in a group devoted solely to the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, the World Preservation Foundation. He is a former principal scientist with the Queensland Department of Environment and Resources Management Remote Sensing Centre.

I argue that any group that campaigns for meaningful action on climate change is wasting its time if it ignores or overlooks the issue of animal agriculture. I believe we will not overcome the crisis without a general move toward a plant-based diet (in addition to other action such as a move away from fossil fuels), and that resources must urgently be devoted to such a transition. That view is partly based on the work of Dr James Hansen, former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who has said that massive reforestation is needed in order to bring CO2 concentrations down to the critical threshold level of 350 parts per million. He also argues for a reduction in non-CO2 climate forcing agents, in which animal agriculture also plays a key role.

I also recently wrote to Australia’s Climate Commission after attending a presentation by Chief Commissioner Professor Tim Flannery and fellow commissioner Professor Will Steffen. Animal agriculture does not appear to be mentioned in any of the commission’s material, and was not referred to in the presentation.

In answer to my question at the presentation on this matter, the commissioners indicated that they have not investigated it due to the commission’s current resource base lacking specific expertise on the topic. A subsequent email response indicated that the commission is considering preparing a report that would include discussion of agricultural emissions and soil carbon. To what extent any such report would focus on animal agriculture is unknown.

It’s worth noting that Professor Flannery has been criticised by mathematician, researcher and writer Geoff Russell for his advocacy of meat consumption. Here’s an example of Russell’s comments.

I feel frustrated by climate change campaigners I know, who choose to largely ignore the animal agriculture issue because of their current food choices. Those choices are largely the result of cultural, social and commercial conditioning, and can easily be changed with a little conviction to do so.

Most people I deal with in the vegan community are campaigning primarily for the rights of animals. Many are also concerned about the environmental aspects, but I believe many others regard them as very much a secondary issue. Even if campaigners’ sole focus is the suffering of animals, they should be alarmed about climate change. It is causing loss of habitat and extinctions at an alarming rate. It is difficult to imagine the suffering created during such processes.

Question: What about the extent of media reporting…

Paul Mahony: Much of the mainstream media tells people what they want to hear. Doubt has been created over climate change by vested interests with massive budgets, applying sophisticated PR techniques. I’ve commented on that aspect of the problem in my article “Relax, have a cigarette and forget about climate change”, talking about the history of PR, including its pioneer, Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud.

Resources created by the tobacco industry to cast doubt over the dangers of passive smoking have been utilised by the fossil fuel industry for the same reason. Large sections of the community who want to believe the problem is not serious are generally happy to absorb false indications of doubt in the scientific community.

The Murdoch press, including The Australian and The Herald Sun newspapers in this country, are happy to contribute to any doubt that may exist in the community.

On a global scale, the issue struggles to compete against other news, such as economic melt-downs.

I’ve previously highlighted the tendency of what I consider to be a more credible media organisation, to report more on sport than on climate change (see slide 90). At least the newspaper involved in that review has been highlighting climate change issues extensively in recent times, including reports from Peter Hannam and Ben Cubby.

I’ve also reported on the fall-away in climate change reporting by mainstream US media outlets in the four years up to 2011 (page 3). It may have increased since the devastation caused by Super Storm Sandy, but in my view, the alarm bells are so muffled as to be almost totally ineffective. That’s partially because President Obama, who understands the issue, including something of livestock’s impacts, has been unwilling to treat it as the emergency it is.

In regard to my own involvement in a major mainstream media article, I was disappointed that the journalist involved was too willing to take the alternative position, without valid reasons or correctly applying some of the key principles involved. I’ve discussed that experience in my article “Does the standard of climate reporting need beefing up?”.

Certain writers, such as Mark Bittman of the New York Times, have pursued the issue of animal agriculture. I haven’t seen Bittman’s recent material, but some of his early material referred to fairly conservative figures from the UN FAO, which I mentioned in answering an earlier question. Despite that, I’m pleased he’s writing and talking about it.

I’ve also had some concerns over The Science Show on ABC Radio National in Australia, whose presenter, Robyn Williams, has been very happy to give airtime to arguments in favour of animal agriculture, without adequately considering the alternative evidence.

Independent outlets such as Climate Progress (part of Think Progress) provide excellent commentary on climate change, but I’ve seen little there on animal agriculture’s impact. For the latter, Geoff Russell’s contributions on Brave New Climate (the site of Professor Barry Brook of the University of Adelaide) are excellent.

Question: What are the possibilities for great cooperation amongst progressive social movements: animal rights, environment, labour, women’s rights, development, human rights, and so forth and are there some examples of such progressive campaigns?

Paul Mahony: I haven’t looked far into this aspect of campaigning, as I have focussed very much on animal rights and the environment. It’s a good question though, and I would have thought that anyone who is concerned about the rights of an individual could easily extend that concept to include all sentient beings, and the right of those beings and future generations to live on a planet that we have protected and nurtured.

A key difficulty may be some lack of willingness by different groups to work cooperatively. That may be driven by human ego as much as anything else.

Some further reading and listening if you’re interested:

Some presentations and papers:

Solar or Soy: which is better for the planet (a review of animal agriculture’s impact)

The urgent need for a general transition to a plant-based diet (Submission in response to National Food Plan Green Paper)

Climate change tipping points and their implications

Paul Mahony is an environmental and animal rights campaigner who is trying to remove what he considers to be blinkers and blindspots in the community, resulting from social, cultural and commercial conditioning. You can find Paul on: Viva la Vegan; Twitter; Slideshare; Sribd; and his blogging site, Terrastendo.

Aerial photo by Les Johnson of Aerofoto, care of Human Sign, St Kilda Beach, 17th May, 2009.