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Meat’s Carbon Hoofprint - Barry Brook and Geoff Russell - Science

Meat’s Carbon Hoofprint - Barry Brook and Geoff Russell - Science

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Barry Brook and Geoff Russell reveal why a family’s meat consumption can
contribute more to global warming than their four-wheel drive vehicle. In Australia, livestock
methane emissions constitute
about 60% of all methane emissions.
Barry Brook and Geoff Russell reveal why a family’s meat consumption can
contribute more to global warming than their four-wheel drive vehicle. In Australia, livestock
methane emissions constitute
about 60% of all methane emissions.

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Published by: Long Kuan - Lohas Queen on Oct 30, 2009
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05/11/2014

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November/December 2007 | |
37
N
ewspaper stories on methaneemissions are often accompa-nied by a cartoon of farting orbelching cattle, and somewhere in thebody of the story you will read that1 tonne of methane is equivalent to21 tonnes of CO
2
. Likewise 1 tonne of nitrous oxide (N
2
O) is said to be equiv-alent to 310 tonnes of CO
2
.This factor is called the globalwarming potential (GWP) of the gas.Thisisgreatforaccounting,becauseyoucanconvertallyourdifferentgreenhousegas emissions into a common unit,aCO
2
-equivalent(CO
2
-e),andaddthemupwhichisexactlywhattheAustralianGreenhouse Office does.ButhowaretheseGWPscalculated,and how do they take into account the varyingratesofbreakdownofdifferentgasesintheatmosphere?First,youneedtomeasuretheamountofgasremainingin the atmosphere as a function of timeafter releasing a tonne of it. This is thedecaycurve(Fig.1),andrepresentsthenaturalbreakdownofmethaneintoCO
2
and water.Nextyouneedtocalculatetheimpactof each molecule on global warming,andmultiplybytheareaunderthedecaycurve. The impact is the change in theradiation balance – which is the differ-ence between the energy of the solarradiation striking the Earth and thethermalradiationleavingtheEarth.Thisradiation balance is expressed as aninstantaneous measure of Watts persquare metre. At present, for each square metre of the Earth’s surface there is about 1.6 Wmoreenergyarrivingthanleaving.Thatmaynotsoundlikemuch,butthediffer-ence in solar radiation due to slowchanges in our orbit around the sun,combined with the wobble and tilt of theEarthonitsaxis,isaglobalaverageof about 0.25 W/m
2
. That differential isenough, when amplified by the planet’sclimatefeedbacks,towhipusbackandforth between ice ages and warm inter-glacialperiods(suchasthepresentday). Asithappens,CO
2
takeshundredsof  years to (mostly) disappear. The decaycurveisverylong,buttheimpactisverysmall. Accounting procedures establishedunder the Kyoto Protocol use the first100yearsofthedecaycurvetocomparegases.So,tocalculatetheGWPofagas,we average the impact of that gas overaperiodof100yearsandexpressitasaratiooftheimpactofCO
2
over100years.Hencetherelativeimpactofthetwogases depends critically on the time periodoverwhichyoumeasureit.If,forinstance, you compare the impact of methanetoCO
2
overaperiodof20yearsinstead of 100 years, then methane has72 times the impact of CO
2
. While atonne of methane is broken down toCO
2
and water in the atmosphere in10–15 years, 1 tonne of CO
2
emissionsstays aloft and active for much longer. About a one-quarter of that tonne willstillbecontributingtoglobalwarmingin500 years. Althoughatmosphericmethanelevels
Meat’s Carbon Hoofprint
Barry Brook and Geoff Russell reveal why a family’s meat consumption cancontribute more to global warming than their four-wheel drive vehicle.
Figure 1. Amount of carbon dioxide (CO
2
)and methane (CH
4
) that remains in theatmosphere as a function of time.
CO
2
decay rate50 100YEARS
     P     E     R     C     E     N     T     A     G     E     O     F     G     A     S     R     E     M     A     I     N     I     N     G
33%CH
4
decay rate10080604020
 
38
| | November/December 2007
are tiny, they are now two-and-a-half times their pre-industrial levels. Bycontrast, carbon dioxide levels are 37%greater. While global warming due tomethane is about half that of CO
2
, theemissions of some countries – notably Australia, Brazil and India – have anunusualstructureduetotheirhighlive-stock populations.
Temperature ControlNow and in the Future
Because CO
2
remains airborne forcenturies, it is absolutely essential toreduce CO
2
emissions quickly. Every4 tonnes added per year adds anothertonne that will still be heating us half amillennia later.So,ifwedonotactquicklytocontrolCO
2
, any actions we take to reducemethane will have little impact on thefutureclimateofourplanet.Ourdescen-dants will suffer from a globally aver-agedtemperatureriseof3–6°Cby2100,aneventual(andperhapsrapid)meltingoftheGreenlandandWestAntarcticicesheets(withanattendant12–14metresof sea level rise), more frequent andseveredroughts,moreintenseflooding,a major loss of biodiversity, and the possibilityofapermanentElNiño,withfrequent failures of the tropicalmonsoons that provide the conditionsrequiredtofeedthebillionsofpeoplein Asia.Buttheoptimisticviewisthatwe,asacollectiveandforward-thinkingsociety,makethenecessaryeconomicandtech-nological choices required to mitigateour CO
2
emissions dramatically. If thisdecision is made, then methane andother greenhouse gases becomeextremely important. Why?First, methane is a very powerfulgreenhouse gas with a relatively shortlifetime, such that methane reductionscan impact the radiation balance rela-tively quickly.Second, while CO
2
emission reduc-tions are complex and costly becausethey cut across some many economicsectors,mitigationofmethaneemissionsis generally far simpler. For example, Australia had 170 million sheep in 1990and it has about 92 million now. Thisreduction was driven by market forcesand was not planned, but it does showhow rapidly methane reductions canhappen.
How Much Methane DoesOur Livestock Produce?
Figures about litres of gas per cow perday don’t mean much to most people.The easiest way to get a feel for thenumbers is to compare livestock emis-sions with some other emissions withwhich people are more familiar.We have more cattle than people in Australia, and five sheep for every person. We don’t run air conditioners24 hours per day, 7 days per week, nordo we individually drive our vehiclesnon-stop.Butcattleandsheep,viatheirfermenting gut bacteria, producemethane continuously, day and night. Annually, Australian livestock produce about 3 million tonnes (Mt) of methane. Using the 100-year GWP, this3 Mt of methane represents 63 Mt of CO
2
-e.Asacomparison,allofAustralia’s passengervehiclesproduceabout43Mtof CO
2
. Using the 20-year factor of 72(which comes from the Intergovern-mental Panel on Climate Change’sFourth Assessment Report), it is clearthat this 3 Mt has an impact on globalwarming,duringthefollowing20years,thatisequivalentto216MtofCO
2
emis-sions.Thisismorethantheatmosphericheatingcausedbyemissionsfromallof  Australia’s coal-fired power stations!Hence methane reductions offer auniqueopportunitytorapidlyandeffec-tively reduce our global warming foot- print.Byimprovingtheradiationbalancequickly,theycanbuyustimewhileCO
2
reductiontechnologiesarebeingdevel-opedanddeployed.Thisisasomewhatironic situation given that wide-scaleuptake of gas-fired power stationsinstead of coal is another way for us tobuy time. A reduction in methane emissionsallowsustoreducetheradiationimbal-ance relatively quickly, which is some-thing that CO
2
reductions cannot do. Inthe US, methane emissions from live-stockaresmallerthanthosefromland-fill, gas leaks and emissions from coalmining. This is partly because the UShas one head of cattle for every three peoplecomparedwithAustralia’sratio,which is the highest on the planet. Inaddition,UScattlearefedgraininfeed-lots, which results in far less methanethan grass-fed cattle. In Australia, live-stock methane emissions constituteabout 60% of all methane emissions.
Comparing Diet andMotoring
Somecomparisonshelptoillustratethewaysinwhichsuchemissionreductions

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