How bad are beef and dairy products for our climate?

We are all hearing that eating meat (especially beef) and consuming dairy products is disastrous for climate change. After a lot of digging into this subject, I have to agree. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation the livestock industry contributes around 14.5% of greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, that’s a staggering 7.1 billion tonnes of COe.

The table below gives a more detailed break-down according to species output:

From the table above, out of all livestock consumption it is plain to see that eating beef and consuming dairy products from cattle are having the greatest effects on our planet.

If we take a look at a more detailed breakdown of this huge output from beef and dairy cattle then we see some interesting facts

39% of COe comes from digestion by cows

10% comes from manure decomposition

The rest is down to feed production / processing (45%) and the last 6% is generated by meat processing and transport.

This means that more than half of the CO₂e produced during the lifecycle of a cow comes from processes other than the belching, farting and break down of faeces from the animals themselves. This suggests that maybe there could be improvements in production techniques which could significantly reduce the overall CO₂e coming from cattle. A recent review revealed some interesting results. By adopting better techniques farmers could help to reduce the CO₂e by 30% without having to overhaul entire production systems. Thirty percent of 4.6 billion (beef and dairy cattle combined) is 1.38 billion, that is a great saving, however the remaining 3.22 billion tonnes is still a mind blowing amount of greenhouse gases.

We should also point out that animal welfare in some parts of the world is questionable at best and if we adopt any new farming practices they should not impact on the wellbeing of the animals.

Of course further reductions in CO2e could be made if more of us ate less beef and consumed less dairy products. Vegans take it to the next level and argue that we should stop exploiting animals altogether. From an environmental and animal welfare point of view this is correct. However there is still a significant part of the world population that does not agree with this thinking and will carry on eating beef, drinking milk and eating butter / cheese no matter how compelling the argument to give it up.

Concentrating on beef for a moment there is another means of reducing our CO₂e  imprint without giving up meat altogether. Take a look at the table below. 

1 kg of meat from  produces kg CO2e 
 Beef 34.6
 Lamb 17.4
 Pork 6.35
 chicken 4.57 

Source: Environmental Impacts on Food Production and Consumption.

If we take UK as an example, the average beef consumption is 18.4kg per person per year, multiply that by 34.6 (the CO₂e per 1kg of beef) and we arrive at a figure of 637kg of CO₂e per person per year. So on average we are all responsible for increasing greenhouse gases equivalent to the weight of 7.5 UK men. Playing devils’ advocate, if we ate chicken instead of beef then the CO₂e drops to a mere 84kg, the weight of a single man. It does not take a mathematical genius to realise that each and every one of us can help the fight against runaway climate change by relatively small but conscious changes to our lifestyle.

We in UK each have a CO2e imprint of around 10 tonnes per year so beef consumption is swallowing around 6.4% of the total, change that beef to chicken and it drops to just 0.84%.

On a world scale UK citizens are still way above the average of 7.9kg beef per person per year but relative to the high end consumers such as Uruguay (56kg), Argentina (54kg), Hong Kong (51kg) and USA (36kg) we are doing OK. As my teachers always used to say, doing well but room for improvement!

Finally it is worth comparing the CO2e from beef consumption to other parts of our lives, for example –

If you buy a new car weighing on average 1400kg, 60% is made from steel and the CO2e of just the steel is 1.4 tonnes

If you have an 11 minute power shower every day you will use 670kg CO2e, the same as our beef consumption.

If you drive the average 12,700kms in your car every year you contribute another 1.55 tonnes CO2e to the atmosphere

Electricity consumption for an average household in UK is about 3,285kWh producing 1.55tonnes CO2e

Gas consumption is about 12,775kWh producing 2.4 tonnes CO2e

A return flight from London to new York on a full Jumbo jet is 776kg CO2e per person

How about a few crazy stats –

To produce the same CO2e as eating 18.4kg beef

a)You could run your kettle continually for 30 days

b)You could send 167,500 e-mails with no attachments or 13,400 e-mails with large attachments.

I hope this blog helps you understand that eating beef and consuming dairy products are really bad for our planet but they are not the worst things we are doing. We need to look at every part of our lives to help reduce our CO2e imprint and if you want to make the largest impact most quickly, sort your transport and energy consumption.

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