An Inconvenient Sequel ignores livestock agriculture

Al Gore’s new documentary “An Inconvenient Sequel” is well worth seeing. Coming out a decade after “An Inconvenient Truth,” it makes one key point on which we all can agree: climate change is already happening, illustrated with collapsing glaciers, extreme weather events, and more. To his credit, Gore does acknowledge agriculture — in one sentence — but immediately adds that the leading cause of climate change is fossil fuel emissions.

Well, isn’t he right?

I would turn Gore’s statement around: without addressing livestock agriculture, we will not be able to deal with climate change. And here’s why.

  1. A lot of fossil fuel goes into livestock agriculture.

To begin with, there’s quite a bit of overlap between fossil fuels and livestock agriculture. Without fossil fuels, we can’t even imagine modern industrial agriculture. Fossil fuels are the raw material of all the nitrogen fertilizers in the world, without which about 3 billion people wouldn’t even be here. Fossil fuels power the energy going into irrigation systems and mechanized agriculture. Fossil fuels support our top-heavy medical system which treats degenerative diseases caused by animal products. Both fossil fuels and livestock need to be addressed.

  1. Livestock are responsible for more greenhouse gases than most believe.

We are eating almost all of the large animals on the planet. The biomass of livestock today is greater than the biomass of humans and all other large animals. In fact, livestock biomass is greater than the biomass of all large animals (humans, livestock, and wild animals) in 1500, or at any prior time in the past 100,000 years! At the same time, plant phytomass has been progressively destroyed; it has been nearly cut in half over last two millennia, according to Vaclav Smil.

These sorts of considerations were behind the 2009 WorldWatch article “Livestock and Climate Change,” by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang. Goodland and Anhang concluded that livestock agriculture was responsible for at least 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Think about it: animals breathe out carbon dioxide; plants take up carbon dioxide. If you increase animals, and decrease plants, what happens?

Because so many people just focus on the “51%” figure, they miss another key implication of “Livestock and Climate Change”: climate change is much worse than we thought. That’s because our greenhouse gas emissions are also about 50% greater than previously thought. Fossil fuels still contribute to climate change; that hasn’t diminished a bit. It just means that we have a number of other things to figure into the climate equation as well, like deforestation and methane.

We may disagree about the exact percentage, but it’s big. Olivier de Schutter’s report to the United Nations, which favorably references “Livestock and Climate Change”, states: “The precise figures remain debated, but there is no doubt in the scientific community that the impacts of livestock production are massive.”

  1. A vegan diet addresses the problem.

A lot of ink has been spilled on the idea of carbon sequestration. Usually this takes the form of expensive and impractical ideas for “clean coal” or “carbon capture and storage.” Somehow we will burn the coal, but strip the carbon out and bury it in the ground. But there’s a much technically simpler and more environmental method of carbon sequestration, with far fewer costs: plant forests.

Sailesh Rao and his colleagues concluded that if we just abandoned livestock agriculture, much of the land would revert to forests. Forests incorporate much, much more carbon than grasslands or pasture. By letting this agricultural land devoted to livestock revert to forests, we could sequester more carbon than has been released into the atmosphere since 1800.

We need a massive international project of reforestation. The only way to meaningfully support this effort is to take some of the vast quantities of land supporting livestock, and plant forests there instead.

I don’t think that Al Gore understands how truly massive livestock agriculture it is. It is this kind of massive disruption of the biosphere that is a huge part of what is driving climate change.

Don’t get me wrong. Climate change is real, fossil fuels are a major part of it, and we should get rid of fossil fuels no matter what. Frying the planet is not an acceptable result here, and every indication is that climate change is much worse than scientists thought even a decade ago.

But this requires a fundamentally different approach. It’s going to require a drastic rethinking of our economy and our way of life. Veganism isn’t the only change we need — we also need to stop burning fossil fuels — but it’s an essential part of the solution. Without a major reduction of livestock agriculture, climate change action simply isn’t going to happen.


8 Replies to “An Inconvenient Sequel ignores livestock agriculture”

  1. The glaciers are not receding and extreme weather events are no more prevalent than they were 50 years ago – it was Global Warming Gore was selling – the moment they changed the name to ‘Climate Change’ they admitted that CO2 has nothing to do with weather patterns. What is true is that Genetically modified wheat and soy have polluted our food chain and destroyed our capacity to reproduce and caused an epidemic of cancers. I suspect that the simple answers of the 1980s, when we were young, will no longer suffice! We owe it to our children to face the hard questions!

    1. The film is very convincing on the glaciers and extreme weather events. It’s really alarming what’s happening in Greenland.

      There may be a glacier here or there which is growing, but overall there is a clear pattern of glaciers retreating. National Geographic has an interesting article on “The Big Thaw”, and the EPA documents how glaciers are retreating in the U. S. and around the world. (I guess Trump hasn’t gotten around to modifying this part of the web site yet.) The Guardian reports on scientific researchers who confirm that extreme weather events are increasing.

  2. Goodland and Anhang’s analysis was published 8 years ago. I haven’t seen any indication that the IPCC gives any credence to the claim that inventories were underestimated by 22GTonCO2e. When asked why their own figure differed from official inventories (or the WRI numbers for the year 2000 that forms the starting point for their analysis), Robert Goodland replied: “If respired GHGs are counted as a proxy for foregone carbon absorption, then most of the 22 billion tons of emissions that we claim were previously not counted can be understood as a potential carbon sink rather than an actual carbon source.”

    1. This sounds fair enough. Some people, that is, get bound up in semantic arguments about whether or not humans are actually “creating” these carbon emissions by not allowing grazing land to revert to its natural state, or “creating” the CO2 respired by livestock. Goodland prefaces his comment by saying “For those who consider counting respiration GHGs overly controversial . . .” We can alleviate these and other objections by just saying “well, look at all the CO2 we COULD be taking out of the atmosphere, regardless of whether or not we blame it on the livestock industry.”

      1. One could easily criticize the FAO study for not considering the mitigation potential of reducing livestock consumption, but as an attribution of actual emissions in 2000, I think it’s a reasonable estimate. One can certainly make the case for using the 20-year GWPs as well, but the 100-year factors are the official ones under the UNFCCC framework. However, I don’t think Goodland and Anhang make the effort to adequately explain that what they are constructing is *not* an inventory that follows IPCC guidelines, or that their starting emission figures (41 755 MtonCO2e) are for the year 2000. As a result of the latter, they aren’t forthcoming that there are adjustments that they should have made that would have also increased total emissions outside of livestock sector (for example, increases in fossil fuel emissions between 2000 and 2009, to accompany similar adjustments that they make for livestock tonnage).

        1. Yes. The IPCC, though, has backed up Goodland and Anhang’s position on the 20-year framework for methane, as is reasonable. And yes, things outside of the livestock sector have increased since 2000 as well. The important thing is not to get hung up on the “51%” figure. Livestock have made the climate change situation much, much worse, no matter what the actual percentage, and no matter how we choose to define “emissions.” Someone needs to acknowledge this.

          1. I misstated the IPCC position about methane in my earlier comment. I should have said: “the IPCC has long supported the use of a 20 year timeframe for methane.” Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 1995. Climate Change 1994: Radiative Forcing of Climate Change and an Evaluation of the IPCC IS92 Emission Scenarios, Ed. J.T. Houghton, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.

            The IPCC does not endorse either the 20-year or the 100-year framework. Joe Romm quotes the IPCC as saying: “There is no scientific argument for selecting 100 years compared with other choices (Fuglestvedt et al., 2003; Shine, 2009). The choice of time horizon is a value judgement since it depends on the relative weight assigned to effects at different times.”

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