Climate change science is difficult. I have heard it said that perhaps only a dozen people in the world really understand it all. Professor Harry Collins explained it well in his excellent little book are we are all scientific experts now? in a neat little diagram of concentric circles which he called “the target diagram”. He defined the core group in the centre as that knowledgeable set of absolute experts with the rings outside being interested collections of individuals such as pressure groups, commentators and journalists who partially understand the subject knowing less the further they are from the centre. According to Collins, those who are furthest away are the ones who talk with the greatest clarity as they do not bother with trying to understand the subject but only focus on the point of view they intend to promote.
The target diagram, Are We Are All Scientific Experts Now?
Unfortunately, as the leather industry well knows, many influential journalists sit in that outer ring and write the significant “op-ed” articles in some of our best newspapers. They choose to explain matters in definitive terms and accept no nuances.
It is in such areas that we have seen a near tsunami of articles blaming cattle for climate change. These began in 2006 when the FAO published Livestock’s Long Shadow which looked at the environmental impact of livestock. To maximise the publicity for it the press release chose headlines that argued that livestock’s impact was greater than transport.
Examination of the report quickly identified that the calculations were incorrect and those for transport missed out huge areas. Current calculations for both the USA and U.K. transport to be 27-28% while livestock is 3-4%. The FAO ended up deeply embarrassed as the report effectively condemned about 1 billion subsistence farmers around the world who depend on livestock but use no fertiliser, fancy feedstuffs, water and have never cut down a forest. Reading analysis of the paper by people like Simon Fairlie (meat a benign extravagance) or Frank Mitloehner the expert academic from California.
However, the report was taken up by the vegan and animal rights groups and is still quoted extensively today by designers like Stella McCartney and others in powerful places in fashion and industry. It was also noted at the Paris Climate meeting that fossil fuel companies were funding research but asking that it be published without reference to this financial sponsorship. Similarly for the op-ed articles the researchers wrote. David Fairlie wrote that he saw a deliberate attempt to deflect the blame for climate change onto livestock that have been contributing happily to a stable planetary lifecycle for millennia and away from the fossil fuels that we began using extensive only at the start of Industrial Revolution.
We should note a few points. The less than 5% of GHGs from livestock does not take into account the carbon dioxide sequestration that takes place in long term grassland, nor the fact that methane output can be significantly diminished by minor dietary changes.
In the USA as stated transport is actually 28%, power generation is the same at 28% and the industry is 22% so you can quickly see where the changes must be made. U.K. figures are very similar but only 17% for the industry.
Of course, these three groups produce carbon dioxide, which is the greenhouse gas (GHG) that is the primary issue as it stays in the atmosphere for 1000 years. Methane from cattle is blamed for being 26 times worse but only remains in the atmosphere for ten years before breaking down as part of the natural carbon cycle. The diagram from Mitloehner’s website is a good explanation.
Cattle could only be blamed for anything if the numbers were hugely increasing, but in the main markets like the USA and Europe，numbers have been falling as we have been more efficient at obtaining the required meat and dairy products from fewer animals. In Brazil a paper from Edinburgh University and SRUC argues that more cattle were needed on the grassland (it was important to maintain an end to deforestation) as the improved grassland would absorb far more Carbon Dioxide than the cattle would produce methane. Any current growth in methane appears to be largely coming from natural gas, including fracking. Russia, Libya and most of the Middle East are unable or unwilling to measure and publish data, and the US has just agreed to reduce the effort out into measuring it as part of Mr Trump’s enthusiasm for fossil fuels. Nevertheless, the data we have appears non-controversial.
Of course, where livestock numbers have grown are in India, where we do not know what the vegan and animal rights community would do. There the animals are not kept for meat at all.