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Cows and Climate Change -- Time To Get Real

Discussion in 'Off Topic' started by Skotty, Feb 29, 2016.

  1. Skotty

    Skotty 2014 Model S P85

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    When it comes to climate change, periodically the topic of cows comes up. Eat less meat. Cows are contributing to climate change. This argument has always bugged me, and it's time for a deeper dive into this topic to determine if cows are a problem, how big of a problem they are, and get real about possible solutions and the tradeoffs involved.

    The first big question to ask gets right to the heart of the matter -- how does a cow contribute to climate change? I can understand the problem with fossil fuels. We are digging up carbon that has been buried for a millennia or longer and introducing it into the atmosphere. What is going on with a cow? It's born, it eats, it grows, and eventually dies. It's part of a shorter term cycle. How is this adding to the problem? Where is the extra carbon coming from? Was it just laying on the ground? Is it in the plants they eat? What if we are growing more plants to feed the cows? Wouldn't this offset the problem to some degree? If a cow is to be a problem, it has to be freeing carbon that was somehow trapped in something other than the air and introducing it into the air, in a way that is out of balance. And maybe that's the case. But someone really needs to explain this more openly so everyone understands. But for now, just to be cautious and for the sake of further argument, lets just assume that this is really happening.

    Next question. How big of a problem can this be? The easy way to look at this is at the individual level. As a beef eater and milk drinker (did you think of that? we need cows for milk too), how many cows am I responsible for? I will take a deeper dive into this in the days ahead.

    Next question. How is this different from any other mammal on the Earth? Expected answer -- it's probably not. This would suggest we could make tradeoffs. How many mammals, or pounds of mammals, or however you want to measure it, should be allowed for each human adult? Is it fair trade to allow cats and dogs to be euthanized at the pound instead of giving them a life in my home if I want to eat more meat? Can I choose to have 1 less child and eat more meat? Some amount of this -- lets call it mammal carbon -- should be okay; in cyclical balance; otherwise, every giraffe and panda on the Earth would be contributing to climate change just out of their very existence. Are you going to point your finger at a panda and blame it for contributing to climate change? So how much mammal carbon can I be responsible for without getting things out of balance? Logically, each of us should have some carbon budget, of which we can allocate however we like. Maybe there could even be a cap and trade system. Want to eat more meat but you are at your budget limit? Buy credits from a petless childless EV-driving vegetarian.

    We have now wrapped back around to looking at the overall greenhouse gas problem. We need to be clear and reasonably certain on how big of an impact each facet of the issue is, in order to know where we need to focus our efforts. The cow issue needs more attention, either to lend it it's due credit, or perhaps to discredit it's often stated significance. Where is the scientific research on the impact of livestock on global greenhouse gas emissions? I'm not interested in what Greenpeace or the cattle industry has to say. It needs to be peer reviewed science. I will be searching for this in the days ahead. Please feel free to share any links or information you may have as well.
     
  2. Chris

    Chris Member

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    It is indeed a real issue. I'd recommend watching 'Cowspiracy', which addresses many of your concerns (it is on Netflix). Also check out their website which links to all scientific studies used in the documentary.
     
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  3. Skotty

    Skotty 2014 Model S P85

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    I haven't checked out Cowspiracy yet, but I will. However, I will admit that through name alone it immediately starts setting off my BS/bias alarms, so I will be looking at it with a very skeptical eye.

    In my own poking around, I found an article that seems like a potential starting point to try to uncover some good research on the issue. The article is a little old, from 2011, so it would be nice to find some newer material as well. The article is:

    Livestock and greenhouse gas emissions: The importance of getting the numbers right
    Livestock and greenhouse gas emissions: The importance of getting the numbers right
    https://cgspace.cgiar.org/bitstream/handle/10568/3910/Herrero_afst_2011.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

    It is something written by folks at the ILRI, the International Livestock Research Institute. Are they biased? What I've found hasn't set off any of my unfair bias detectors yet.

    The ILRI is the International Livestock Research Institute, which "works to improve food security and reduce poverty in developing countries through research for better and more sustainable use of livestock."

    The ILRI is a member of the CGIAR consortium. Well, who are they?

    CGIAR is "the only worldwide partnership addressing agricultural research for development, whose work contributes to the global effort to tackle poverty, hunger and major nutrition imbalances, and environmental degradation."

    Seems reasonable so far, but I will need to dig deeper.

    Finally, here's the abstract of the article, in case you don't want to go read the whole thing (thought it's not really that long):

    Abstract/Description
    Estimates of global greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions attributable to livestock range from 8 to 51%. This variability creates confusion among policy makers and the public as it suggests that there is a lack of consensus among scientists with regard to the contribution of livestock to global GHG emissions. In reality, estimates of international scientific organizations such as the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are in close agreement, with variation mainly arising on how GHG emissions are allocated to land use and land use change. Other estimates involve major deviations from international protocols, such as estimated global warming potential of CH4 or including respired CO2 in GHG emissions. These approaches also fail to differentiate short-term CO2 arising from oxidation of plant C by ruminants from CO2 released from fixed fossil C through combustion. These deviances from internationally accepted protocols create confusion and direct attention from anthropomorphic practices which have the most important contribution to global GHG emissions. Global estimates of livestock GHG emissions are most reliable when they are generated by internationally recognized scientific panels with expertise across a range of disciplines, and with no preconceived bias to particular outcomes.

    - - - Updated - - -

    My concern on this topic is the potential, as noted in the last line of the abstract for the article I mentioned, for "preconceived bias to particular outcomes". My personal gut feeling is that there IS a problem to manage in regards to livestock and agriculture, but that this is an area that may be highly susceptible to such preconceived bias to particular outcomes. When this happens, it can do more to hurt the movement than to help it, as it can cause people to reject the concept entirely when there is in fact some truth to it. Is that what is happening with Cowmate Change? Kind of feels like it. I suspect Cowspiracy may be fall into this category, though I can't judge it without first reviewing it. More research needed...
     
  4. jeremyz

    jeremyz Member

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    FAO -Key facts and findings

    • Total emissions from global livestock: 7.1 Gigatonnes of Co2-equiv per year, representing 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic GHG emissions. This figure is in line FAO’s previous assessment, Livestock’s Long Shadow, published in 2006, although it is based on a much more detailed analysis and improved data sets. The two figures cannot be accurately compared, as reference periods and sources differ.
    • Cattle (raised for both beef and milk, as well as for inedible outputs like manure and draft power) are the animal species responsible for the most emissions, representing about 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions.

    In 2010, global ghg emissions for the entire transportation sector was 14%. So, Livestock produce roughly the same amount of ghg emissions as all of the cars, planes, trains, buses, big rigs, boats and supertankers on Earth.
    Global Emissions | Climate Change | US EPA
     
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  5. Chris

    Chris Member

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    @Skotty You are suspecting bias and at the same time confirming your own bias by judging before looking at the evidence. The title might not convey 'seriousness' but in my opinion it is a well researched documentary. One of the major studies is by the USDA, highlighting the huge impact animal agriculture has on greenhouse gases. That is mostly methane, not CO2. Methane, albeit short lived, is 25 times more potent than co2. But the impact goes much further if we all start realizing that every second we loose an acre of rainforest, almost exclusively to make room for grazing animals, namely cows. Co2 is released by burning the forest and the carbon capturing capacity of the now gone trees is lost forever.
     
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  6. dhanson865

    dhanson865 Active Member

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    #6 dhanson865, Feb 29, 2016
    Last edited: Feb 29, 2016
    afaik the real issue with cows and other large animals isn't their own waste emissions but the water and energy spent keeping them alive during the growing process and harvesting process. For the large animals you pay for all the energy spent growing grain and then feed that to the cows. It's like Cows are the Toyota Mirai of food. You pay to change the energy type multiple times thus it is never as good as just using the grain in the first place.

    Images like
    Greenhouse20Gas20Emissions20from20Common20Proteins20and20Vegetables20.jpe from The Impacts - 2011 Meat Eaters Guide | Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change + Health | Environmental Working Group


    c8798c084516466b5df782eb7dcf2712.jpg from who knows where

    and the general inefficiency of space vs production

    proteinperacre.ashx_.jpe


    I still eat Beef but I'm willing to concede it's inefficient and I'm willing to eat more Chicken than Beef. Maybe I'd be healthier if I removed some meat from my diet but I grew up eating meat with nearly every meal and it'd be a big loss in comfort and a strong will would be required.

    Check out this one

    foodprint5.gif from The carbon foodprint of 5 diets compared shrinkthatfootprint.com
     
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  7. Skotty

    Skotty 2014 Model S P85

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    This topic also re-emphasizes something I feel strongly about -- you often hear about climate change, and about how you can (and should?) use less energy, be more efficient, drive less, eat less meat. These are all good for mitigating the issues, but they often don't address the core problem, which is why these activities were dirty in the first place. As this pertains to beef, the core solution is not to just stop eating meat, it's to fix what's making meat production greenhouse gas emitting in the first place, at least as much as it can be. How clean can it be made, and how do we enforce it? More questions to consider.
     
  8. ecarfan

    ecarfan Well-Known Member

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    Skotty, there is no question that the ILRI is biased. It is funded by the livestock industry. Businesses like factory agriculture are not going to spend money on publicizing the idea that their product has a negative impact on the environment. That is not "conspiracy theory" thinking, that is simply rational analysis.
    Based on what I have been reading for many years now, there is no question that livestock production is a significant contributor to human-caused climate change. Americans, on average, consume far more protein than they need for good health, and the vast majority of that protein is beef/pork/chicken. There are many compelling arguments to be made for consuming much less animal protein, and reducing environmental damage is one of them.
     
  9. ItsNotAboutTheMoney

    ItsNotAboutTheMoney Active Member

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    And I am very sad that lamb has higher calculated emissions than beef.
     
  10. Skotty

    Skotty 2014 Model S P85

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    Depends on what you mean by "bias". If it's just taken to mean having preference, that's fine as long as it doesn't lead to intentional dishonesty or unintentional misrepresentation of reality. And I'm not smelling any of that on what I've seen so far from the ILRI. Their arguments seem sound and rational. They don't seem to be denying there's an impact, and they seem sincere in their desire to have it accurately represented and in their mission to reduce that impact.
     
  11. Skotty

    Skotty 2014 Model S P85

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    #11 Skotty, May 16, 2016
    Last edited: May 16, 2016
    Coming back to this forgotten topic -- how much of the problem is attributable to the cow vs to how the cow is managed?

    If the cow itself is a problem, is a cow somehow special where it's a much bigger problem than other types of animals?

    If the cow itself is a problem, and if a cow is comparable to other animals, then we would need to look at all animals, not just cows.

    Now some quick Googling statistics --

    How many cows are there?

    1.3 - 1.5 billion cows (www.todayifoundout.com)
    100 million cows in the US (quora.com)

    Lets compare that to something similar, like Bison.

    There were once more than 30 million bison in North America (pbs.org)
    Maybe 500,000 today.

    Were Bison causing global warming problems back before they were slaughtered to near extinction?

    How many dogs are there? 525 million (ask.com, psychologytoday.com)

    Do we need to start getting rid of pet dogs?

    And how much do people themselves supposedly cause just from being alive?

    More questions that can help put the cow situation into at least some kind of context. Something that has been sadly lacking from much of the material coming from the anti-cow crowds. If you want to make a solid case for cows being a problem, we need better evidence. And it needs to broken down, so we can better understand exactly how much problem the various aspects of it contribute. How much is cow poop? How much is land management? How much is transportation, if that's getting lumped in, which I would guess it is? How much is processing? How much is meat packaging?

    I left this topic for awhile after being underwhelmed with the available information I could find, but I need to get back to it. This problem needs to be broken down and understood. I don't think the current stop-eating-meat vs laissez-faire debate is helpful. It needs to be broken down to understand how much the various aspects of it can be improved and to arrive at some level of meat production that is reasonable.

    Some additional links:
    Are Cows Climate Killers? - Our World
    Livestock, Environment and Development: Climate change
    Does breathing contribute to CO2 buildup in the atmosphere?
     
  12. deonb

    deonb Active Member

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    You can't compare them directly like that. Cows don't eat fossilized carbon. If you see one that is busy digging a mine to go chew on some coal, please stop it.

    Cows eat plants that, if there weren't cows to eat, they would have eventually died, decomposed, and emitted exactly as much CO2 as the cow does when eating those plants. A cow cannot directly cause any net CO2 to be released into the atmosphere, than planting a tree can remove net CO2 away from it. (When the system is in equilibrium).

    Now, there are other bad aspects to cows other than direct CO2 emissions - like non-renewable energy use during mining operations, and CH4 from cow flatulence & cow manure. Though the latter is actually a usable and manageable resource. In fact I charged my Tesla from it a little while ago... getting 0.8 mpcd... miles-per-cow-per-day :).


    The point is - if you see any study that's showing direct CO2 emissions from cows (as opposed to energy-based CO2 emissions), you have to take it with a grain of salt. It's the cow equivalent of leaving out the well-to-wheel formula for fossil fuel mining & refining when comparing ICE & EV emissions.
     
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  13. Bangor Bob

    Bangor Bob Member

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    Cows actually do eat fossilized carbon. Lots of natural gas is used to create fertilizer, to grow grains for feed.

    We don't HAVE to do it that way, but without a price on carbon it's most profitable to do it that way. From the chart above, it looks like we should be feeding them lentils if we can't just let them graze. And of course, raising them in parts of the world without enough naturally-occurring surface water is just dumb.
     
  14. Canuck

    Canuck Active Member

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    #14 Canuck, May 16, 2016
    Last edited: May 16, 2016
    That's not a fair comparison since much of North America was covered in forest (much of which were old growth) when there were 30 million bison. The oceans were also absorbing much more co2 that what they are able to do today:

    "Dickson noted that although the oceans presently take up about one-fourth of the excess CO2 human activities put into the air, that fraction was significantly larger at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. That’s for a number of reasons, starting with the simple one that as one dissolves CO2 into a given volume of seawater, there is a growing resistance to adding still more CO2."

    The farts of those bisons from the western plains were absorbed by the massive forests and a pristine ocean so as not to be of concern. Our cow farts (and more -- feed for them etc.) are adding to all other other activities, plus instead of forests to filter them we have built cities spewing their own carbon into the air, and we also have an ocean saturated in CO2.

    You may want to look at the studies of what eating red meat, and drinking milk, do to your heart. That's probably more of an immediate concern to you than your contribution to climate change. Plus, once you get the heart/meat/milk balance down to a rate that won't affect your health, you'll probably be at a rate that's not too bad for the environment too.
     
  15. LargeHamCollider

    LargeHamCollider Battery cells != scalable

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    I think the most intellectually serious film I've seen on the issue is from this young man here:
     
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  16. ggr

    ggr Roadster R80 537, SigS P85 29

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    I thought the big climate change effect from cows was from the methane, not the CO2. They belch a ridiculous amount and it goes straight into the atmosphere. Turning vegetation into natural gas takes millions of years (and it mostly stays underground until someone digs it up), but cows do it pretty much in real time.
     
  17. mspohr

    mspohr Active Member

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    The "Cowspiracy" movie covers the issue of "sustainable beef" and the answer is no.
    If beef is raised on pasture only (and the pasture isn't fertilized) then it has lower CO2 production but still significant global warming impact. Plus, there's not enough pasture raise anywhere near the amount of beef we consume today. Best to just say no to beef and other met.
    It's not healthy to eat meat, it's not good for the environment and there are significant ethical issues in raising farm animals.
     
  18. mspohr

    mspohr Active Member

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    There's a lot of CO2 emitted in growing and harvesting the grain that cows eat (and they only convert about 3% of it into usable meat).
     
  19. deonb

    deonb Active Member

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    #19 deonb, May 16, 2016
    Last edited: May 16, 2016
  20. mspohr

    mspohr Active Member

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