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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.