The Other "Big" Problem

Justin Guay, Sierra Club - India Program Officer

According to the World Resources Institute the United States, a country with a population of 300 million, accounts for approximately 18% of global green house gas (GHG) emissions.

India, a country with over 1 billion inhabitants, accounts for only 5% of global GHG emissions. In per capita terms, India emits about 1/3 of the world average (4.4 tons) while the US emits nearly 6 times that amount.

feedlot Energy consumption, namely from Big Oil and Big Coal tend to garner most of the attention related to these statistics, but there is a third “big” that is often overlooked and accounts for a significant portion of the difference between the US and India – Big Meat.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that direct and indirect emissions from the livestock sector contribute 18% of global GHG emissions. These emissions are generated from a variety of activities including the clearing of forest areas in order to graze livestock or to produce feed grain, the energy intensive production of nitrogen-based fertilizers, and the enteric fermentation of ruminant animals (think cows).

Of the GHG gases produced by these activities, methane and nitrous oxide are particularly important, as they are 23 and 300 times more potent than C02 respectively.

When the emissions from this sector are put into context it is difficult to understand how they are so often overlooked. In the United States, manure alone is the 5th largest source of methane and the 4th largest source of nitrous oxide according to the USEPA.  It results in more annual emissions than all cement production– a notoriously energy intensive industry.  Combined, manure and enteric fermentation produce about as many GHG emissions as the entire commercial sector’s burning of fossil fuel

Unfortunately, the demand for meat is increasingly being adopted by the rapidly industrializing world, – particularly China.  Similar consumption patterns, a growing middle class, increasing urbanization and increased consumption of meat and animal products have marked recent Chinese growth. In fact, since 1980, meat consumption in China has risen four-fold - it’s now about 119 pounds per person per year, just over half of the American average of 220 pounds.

cow hindu However, India is an exception. Today, Indians consume nearly 1/25th of the meat eaten by an American. More importantly they consume only 1/11th of the meat eaten by an average Chinese citizen. While many energy-related statistics are likely to be diluted by per capita measurements, vegetarianism tends to be the rule rather than the exception in Indian society in spite of increasing levels of meat consumption by upper class Indians.

By following India’s lead and reducing our own meat consumption the West can achieve significant emissions reductions – particularly in the near term. This is due to the fact that methane has a strong short-term radiative forcing effect, and only remains in the atmosphere for up to 15 years.  This fast-acting mitigation strategy can buy us precious time while we pursue the daunting task of shifting from a fossil-fuel based economy to one driven by clean energy.

In the near term individuals can have a tremendous effect through simple lifestyle choices ranging from becoming a vegetarian to simply giving up one or two “meat meals” each week. In fact, it is one of the easiest, cheapest, and most effective means for an individual to contribute to the struggle against climate change.

In the long term we must transform our agricultural system into a sustainable system that supports local economies, ecosystems, and communities. Indeed, it’s about time we addressed our “big” problem.

This post appears courtesy of Sierra Club India.

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  • Posted on March 15, 2010. Listed in:

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