The Impact of Livestock on Climate Change

Spurned by our brief discussion on the impact cows and methane have on the climate, I wanted to learn a little bit more about their impact.  I came across an article on “time for change” that elaborates on the issue.   The big talking point of the article for me was the fact that “agriculture is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases world-wide.”  This is a big number, and I never realized the scale of the impact livestock had on greenhouse emissions.  This is a tricky subject, as humans are unlikely to decrease their meat consumption, and cows are used for other products such as milk as well.  As the population of the world goes up, this number is likely to increase, as a larger population means there is a larger demand livestock.

The article explains that “global meat production is expected to double from 229 million tons to 580 million tons in 2050.”  Furthermore “a kg of beef is responsible for the equivalent of the amount emitted by a European car for 250 km.” They put forth a table that breaks down where the CO2 comes from.  The message of the article: humans need to consume less meat and dairy in order to lower these numbers and the impact of climate change.

Carbon Dioxide and developing countries

Climate change caused by elevated carbon dioxide emissions takes its toll everywhere around the globe. However, not every country contributes to carbon dioxide emissions as much as others do, and not all countries are affected by climate change equally. Articles posted by the Center for Global Development look at how developed and developing countries differ responsibility for climate change. Historically, developed countries have been responsible for well over 50% of carbon dioxide emissions globally. There is, of course, a relationship between growing infrastructure and industry and  carbon dioxide emissions. However, there are exceptions. In 2014 England’s economy grew by 2.6% and their carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by 8.4%. Although some developed countries now are seeing economic growth and decreases in carbon emissions simultaneously, this is rarely the case for developing countries.  There is also a greater cost for climate change on developing countries than on developed countries. More tropical storms and less access to resources take a financial toll on developed countries. While the increase in industry and infrastructure in developing countries may be a good sign for economic growth, it is not beneficial to the amount of carbon dioxide emissions. One huge contributor to carbon dioxide emissions is deforestation, which was responsible for one-third of sub-Sahara Africa’s carbon emissions. Finding a balance between economic growth and reducing our carbon footprint is difficult to achieve, but is important in working towards the advancement of developing countries while being ecologically thoughtful.

Rising Levels of Carbon Dioxide Could Both Hurt and Help Crops

The crops that are grown globally, and sustain close to 4.5 billion people worldwide, are wheat, maize, rice, and soybeans. With these crops sustaining more than half of the world’s population, how are they not apart of the bigger conversation surrounding the rising levels of carbon dioxide?

In an article by Samson Reiny, published on NASA’s website, he discusses the fact that rising levels of carbon dioxide could both, simultaneously, help and harm the four crops listed above. He makes the argument that, so far, climate prediction models have only taken into account the effect that carbon dioxide will have on yields and not the effect they have on water efficiency, and even then are only measuring temperate climates. He reports on a simulation conducted by a Delphine Deryng in which the yields and evapotranspiration were manipulated to “to estimate crop water productivity” by using a measurement of yield that was produced per unit of water. In total, there were 30 simulations, six of which were using data from “five different global climate models” which assumed the carbon dioxide levels that were reported in 2000 had doubled by 2080. Another simulation models used assumed that the carbon dioxide levels had remained stagnant since 2000.

The simulation crops that operated at the 2000 carbon dioxide levels the yields suffered dramatically. However, with the doubled carbon dioxide levels predicted at 2080 both yields and water efficiency had a dramatic increase. These increases, however, depend upon regions and whether the crops were irrigated or rain fed. For example, Reiny discusses maize in terms of losses with the doubled carbon dioxide, due to the crop’s already efficiency of photosynthesis, maize would yield 15% less in areas using irrigation and 8% in rain fed areas. However, these losses would close to double without the doubling of carbon dioxide in the simulation, and the assumed doubling of carbon dioxide since 2000 would reveal that wheat would show crop yield increases “across the board”. These yields would be 8% increased with a 50% increase in water efficiency in rain fed areas.

Essentially, there needs to be far more research done about carbon dioxide and its effects, but the four most globally powerful crops need to be apart of that conversation. Through these simulations there has been discovered that a lot more research has yet to be done on the effect of carbon dioxide on these crops, but more so in developing countries that tend to have drier and more arid climates instead of the temperate climates of the west. Our climate models, and models for how we plan to feed future generations, need to include the countries that are not apart of the western hemisphere. How would any climate or environmental model be accurate if we exclude them?


Agriculture and Climate Change

Agriculture has been the main means of survival for humans for centuries. The age of hunter-gatherers is ancient history. Societies all over the globe have been built and destroyed over the resources that are yielded due to the development of agriculture and agricultural technology. Because agriculture involves utilizing a small area relative to the number of crops grown or livestock raised on it, it means that farmers and ranchers are able to produce a high volume of what they are producing in a concentrated area. However, the world has been facing an agricultural crisis in the last millennium due to exponential population growth and a vast reduction in arable farmland. This means that the demand for milk, eggs, crops, meat, etc.. is rising, but the area in which these resources are produced is shrinking. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social affairs reported a projection that the world population will reach 9.7 billion people by the year 2050. But what does that mean for the future of agriculture? Well, modern scientists have already started to come up with solutions to these issues; many of which may sound familiar. Factory farming, genetically modified foods, pesticides and artificial growth hormone and antibiotic cocktails for animals are only a few ways that agriculture has been permeated by modern technology. Unfortunately, many of these technological ‘advances’ have been catastrophic for the earth. Factory farms produce incredible amounts of CO2 and CH4 and they pollute soil, ground water and air quality. The sick animals that they raise on artificial hormones and antibiotics are then fed to humans which makes us, by default, sicker as well. The plants, such as soybeans, produced by companies like Monsanto, are so altered and sprayed with chemicals that they are de facto stripped of their nutritional value.

In the same UN/DESA study, it is projected that the yield of staple grains like wheat and corn will decrease by 50% due to the effects of global warming. Imagine that: 35 years from now, we will probably have only half the number of grains and corn that we have now because of climate change. Less arable land means fewer farms, which leads to higher prices and lower production. Agriculture, and the deforestation that is needed to create farmland, is responsible for 1/5th or 21% of all CO2 emissions in the world, between 2000 and 2010. The total estimate of CO2 emissions from agriculture in this decade was approximately 44 billion metric tonnes. Anthropic climate change is killing agriculture, but the deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions from farms is one of the single largest causes of climate change in the world. So is agriculture good or bad? The simple answer is both or neither, whichever way you choose to look at it.

You can read the whole article here.

CO2 in the Netherlands

CO2 emission in the Netherlands was measured at 163 billion kilograms in 2017 which is the same as it was measured in the 1990s. But, methane, nitrous oxide and F-gasses all were measured at half the rate they were in the 1990’s. This may seem like a silver lining but the sectors causing the emission of CO2 has grown in scale, meaning the rate at which they emit CO2 has decreased. For example, Energy Companies in the Netherlands have produced more CO2 by 22 percent in this time period but they have increased production by more than 50 percent. Below is a table I found displaying the emissions of CO2 and greenhouse gasses since 1990.

1990-2017 Emissions


In my opinion the shift of the focus should not be just decreasing the rate of emissions but creating renewable energy that does not emit greenhouse gasses at all. CO2 is by far the most common product of industrial progression. But, it is important to note that no CO2 or greenhouse gasses are helpful to our atmosphere. Serious changes need to be made in the types of energy we use before the damage we cause is irreversible.


The Effects of Increasing levels of Carbon Dioxide

Kevin Loria’s article on the rise in Carbon Dioxide levels mentions that, for the first time in more than 800,000 years, the monthly average atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have topped 410 ppm. Providing a strong reason to believe this will have adverse effects on human health. This rise in CO2 levels will increase levels of pollution and the diseased related to it, as well as extreme weather patterns. These patterns would include heat waves, hurricanes, and spread the ranges of disease-carrying insects. Loria mentions that although the rise in Carbon Dioxide levels won’t have direct effects on our ability to breathe, but will “dramatically increase pollution and related diseases, potentially slow human cognition, cause extreme weather events (including deadly heat waves), and broaden the range of disease-carrying creatures like mosquitos and ticks.”

A study published in 2017 in the journal Nature Climate Change found that “30% of the world is already exposed to heat intense enough to kill twenty or more people each day.” This rise in atmospheric temperature may cause many more people to die every year and if temperatures continue to increase the numbers will multiply. This rise in temperature will also lead to a more intense hurricane season with rising water levels and warmer ocean temperatures. Along with extreme heatwaves, CO2 will destroy the ozone, which can lead to death through respiratory illness, asthma, and emphysema. Along with increasing rates of lung cancer, allergies, and cardiovascular disease. Insects along with their deadly diseases will spread to the warmer regions, who would typically die out during colder seasons would stay longer, and their habitats would expand further.

The effects of this rise in CO2 are already showing up, and without an answer, we will begin to see more and more severe consequences for our actions. The answers are more than just cutting back on CO2; this becomes a worldwide problem and not just a domestic issue.