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Human activities such as deforestation and burning of fossil fuels always tops the list whenever the causes of global warming are discussed. Even though burning of gas, oil and coal to power cars and produce electricity releases CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere, the contribution of livestock to global warming has been massively underestimated. According to Goodland and Anhang, livestock farming contributes to approximately 6 billion tons of GHGs to the atmosphere every year. Although estimates vary, livestock contributes to about half of all human-caused greenhouse gases (11). Some of the ways in which livestock contribute to global warming are through respiration/breathing, digestion and deforestation which is caused by the destruction of natural forest to feed livestock.
The Kyoto protocol does not list livestock respiration as a source of GHGs; however, the same Kyoto protocol recognizes CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Since livestock is a significant contributor of CO2 it is tempting for CO2 emissions from livestock to be excluded from GHGs accounting. Therefore, the argument by FAO is refutable since according to Goodland and Anhang, CO2 emissions from livestock account to about 21 percent of GHGs worldwide (12). This is an enormous contribution of GHGs which should not be excluded from global GHGs. In this regard, the best strategy to reduce GHGs emissions from livestock would be to replace livestock products with better alternatives.
Livestock account for approximately 37 percent of human-induced methane (Goodland and Anhang 13). The capacity of a greenhouse gas to trap heat in the atmosphere is referred to as its global warming potential (GWP) (Goodland and Anhang 13). Although methane warms the earth much more strongly than carbon dioxide, it has a shorter half-life (8 years) compared to that of CO2 which is 100 years (Goodland and Anhang 13). Moreover, livestock also generates nitrous oxide (comes from manure) whose GWP is 296 times that of CO2. This, therefore, implies that reducing the number of livestock reared would significantly reduce the greenhouse gases.
Another way in which livestock contributes to global warming is through deforestation. Currently, there is a worldwide shortage of grassland. As a result, the only way to get livestock feed is to destroy the natural forest (Goodland and Anhang 13). Overall, it is estimated that livestock use approximately 40 percent of the earth's land surface. Therefore, the major driver of deforestation is the destruction of forests to create new pasture for livestock. For instance, in developing countries such as those in Latin America, forests have been turned into grazing land. Further, in developing countries, rainforest stores about 200 tons of carbon. When the forest is cleared, the tonnage of carbon reduces to 8 per hectare (Goodland and Anhang 13). When the vegetation is removed, the stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide thus contributing to global warming. As such, preventing deforestation and controlling access to common pastures are important actions in the fight against global warming.
In a nutshell, global warming is a very sensitive issue which must not be ignored. Although other causes of the phenomenon exist, it is tempting to underestimate the contribution of livestock. Therefore, policy changes will be necessary in reducing GHGs emissions. Finally, it is worth noting that every human being is responsible for this phenomenon and blaming livestock alone will not solve the problem. Therefore, further studies are needed to understand how to curb global warming through a holistic approach.
Goodland, Robert, and Jeff Anhang. "Livestock and climate change: What if the key actors in climate change are... cows, pigs, and chickens?." Livestock and climate change: what if the key actors in climate change are... cows, pigs, and chickens? (2009).
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