“If you reduce the amount of methane emissions, the level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere goes down fairly quickly, within decades, as supposed to CO2 – if you reduce the emission to the atmosphere, you don’t really see a signal in the atmosphere for about a 100 years or so.”
- Professor of Global and Environmental Health at the University of Berkeley Kirk R. Smith
“My calculations are that without using any gas, oil or fuel, ever again, from this day forward, that we would still exceed our maximum carbon equivalent greenhouse gas emissions, 565 gigatons, by the year 2030. That is without even factoring in the energy or electricity sector in the equation; all simply by raising and eating livestock”.
- Richard Oppenlander – Environmental researcher and author of Comfortably Unaware
Global warming was the elephant in the room no one wanted to talk about; some major politicians still doubt its existence, even though under one percentage of the scientists studying our earths environmental health disagree that a global warming of our planet is happening. However, in the latest years, global warming has been universally approved by the mass majority and you can find “environmentalists” everywhere. As a matter of fact, a study shows that 75% of the American population say they’re environmentalists. Major environmental organizations like www.conserve-energy-future.com give you small things you can do to combat climate change, such as: Replacing regular incandescent light bulbs, drive less, recycle more and use less water. Meanwhile many environmental organisations down prioritize, or don’t address at all, one of the biggest, arguably the biggest contributor to global climate change; the emission of methane gas.
Methane gas (CH4) is a greenhouse gas composed of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms. It has been known for a long time that methane gas is a lot more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2), but a new study from The Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies concludes that in the 10 years a methane alkane can “survive” in the atmosphere, it can be up to 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas in the start, however decreasing its potency to around 33 times that of carbon dioxide for the rest of its existence in our atmosphere. This shows us that only a small amount of methane gas can reinforce the ongoing greenhouse effect by a significant amount. However, the big question still remains; where does methane gas come from?
The main contributor to the emission of methane gas is through eating and producing livestock. In other words, most of the “dangerous” methane gas is a product of agriculture, more specifically the emissions from farm animals like cows, sheep, chickens and pigs. Although this may be true, agriculture is not the only source of methane emissions. Other alternate sources of methane emissions include extraction from natural gas fields, fermentation of biological masses, extraction of fossil fuels (especially in coal mines), industrial emissions and the breakdown of organic material without oxygen (anaerobe breakdown). Although all of these are sources of methane emissions, going in-depth in all of them would be too comprehensive. Therefore, I will focus on agriculture and natural sources of the greenhouse gas.
The western world consumes a lot of meat, especially The United States, which comes in as the second most meat-consuming country per capital, right behind Luxemburg. As a matter of fact, a study done by The Earth Policy Institute shows that the average American eats around 170 pounds or 77 kg meat every year. That is the equivalent of 210 grams of meat per day, and its continually on the rise, in the US, but also globally, Thus; emissions for agriculture are proje
cted to increase by 80 per cent by 2050 (http://academic.regis.edu/MFRANCO/Seminar%20in%20Biology%20research%20Literature/Papers/GobalDiets.pdf). This is solely due to the world’s gradually increasing consumption of meat and dairy products. This projected figure is not only threatening because of the increase in methane emissions; raising livestock is a very resource consuming way of food production.
According to a study conducted by the Oxford University it takes approximately 2500 gallons or 9464 liters to produce 1 pound of beef. (http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/54/10/909.full). In addition to that, many other animal-made products such as eggs and diary products also leave behind a very water-heavy footprint. But why do animal products crave so much water?
The reason for the incredibly water-heavy footprint are the grains in which the animals of modern agriculture is fed. In modern agriculture a very water demanding variation of grains is commonly being used to feed the farm animals. Less water demanding grains have been proposed to displace the breeds in use now. However, due to the fact that the change wouldn’t save a big percentage of water, yet the options all have a significantly higher price tag, most farm animals are still fed with the current breed of grains. This means that most of the animal products demand a lot of water to be produced, leading us to the very high water footprint. To build on this point, the production of feed crops for livestock is to blame for 56 per cent of the annual water use in America, while domestic use only counts for about 5 per cent of the usage.
However, a large water-footprint and high amounts of methane emissions are not the only negative outcomes of the growing agricultural and meat industry; producing grains for livestock also takes up large amounts of land.
A study conducted in 2011 by IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) shows that food production for livestock and livestock itself covers around 45 per cent of earths total land. (https://cgspace.cgiar.org/bitstream/handle/10568/10601/IssueBrief3.pdf)
This shows how much land livestock and the food produced for livestock demand. In addition to this, up to 91 per cent of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest is to be accounted for by animal agriculture; the raising of feeding crops.
In other words, animal agriculture is by far the biggest reason of the massive down-forestation of the biggest and most important rainforest in the world; the Amazon rainforest. Consequently, the raising of crops for livestock is extremely damaging to the environment, since the rainforests (the Amazon rainforest in particular), helps tone down the greenhouse effect substantially by transforming large amounts of carbon dioxide to oxygen.
Now that I’ve covered agriculture I will direct my focus towards natural sources of methane.
The biggest natural source of methane is “wetlands”. Wetlands are land areas saturated with water. Wetlands contain large amounts of hydric soil; soil that contains zero to very low amounts of oxygen. Because of this microorganisms called ”Methanogens” thrive. The microorganisms called Methonogens often produce large amounts of methane as they respire carbon dioxide to derive energy.
It is estimated that wetlands account for about 80 per cent of the global natural methane emissions. Most of the remaining 20 per cent origins from methane hydrates, termites and the oceans. Furthermore, the total methane emissions from natural sources annually are estimated to be around 250 million tonnes.
In addition, a recent research led by The University of Exeter advocate that rising temperatures globally will lead to higher emissions of methane gas in freshwater wetlands, potentially increasing the annual emissions of methane gas from natural sources exponentially. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140327111724.htm)
In conclusion, it is clear to me that the level in which methane emissions are heading in the future is not sustainable for the climate. As said by Dr. Richard Oppenlander, we will hit the maximum carbon equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 solely taking the emission of methane gas from raising livestock into the equation, according to his research. Combining that information with the recent study led by David Tilman and Michael Clark (http://academic.regis.edu/MFRANCO/Seminar%20in%20Biology%20research%20Literature/Papers/GobalDiets.pdf) showing that the emissions from agriculture are projected to increase by 80 per cent by 2050, it’s looking very grim for the global climate years ahead.
But there is a small glimpse of hope.
As mentioned, around 75 per cent of Americans consider themselves environmentalists; globally climate change is gradually gaining more attention. However, if everyone in the world all followed the recommended small actions to combat climate change; replacing the regular light bulbs etc. we would still not be able to avoid the disasters of tomorrow. This can only be done by a continuous effort both by the world’s governments and the people to lower people’s meat consumption, whilst also fight all the other causes increasing the greenhouse effect and our planets global warming; that is carbon dioxide emissions through transportation, the burning of fossil fuels, down-forestation worldwide, emissions from the energy sector and the emissions from electricity use. Only by radical change in all of these sectors will we be able to combat climate change.
- Cowspiracy – the documantary