The claim: Livestock is the biggest contributor to climate change
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions has been at the center of global efforts to fight climate change, but the main driver of these harmful emissions continues to be debated on social media.
A November 20 Instagram post (direct link, archive link) shows text next to a photo of a puzzled-looking man.
“When people talk about climate change but don’t mention how animal agriculture is the biggest contributor,” he says. The post garnered over 500 likes in a week.
But the assertion is false.
Climate experts say the burning of fossil fuels is the biggest contributor to global climate change.
Animal agriculture is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, but the extent to which it contributes to global emissions depends on how researchers and studies define different economic sectors, and how they incorporate things like farm equipment and food exports into the animal impact assessment.
USA TODAY has reached out to social media users who shared the posts for comment.
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Fossil fuels responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions
All living mammals produce greenhouse gases like methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Livestock, and especially ruminants like cows and goats, produce methane and nitrous oxide when they digest their food.
But the percentage of global emissions produced by animal agriculture is “much smaller” than the percentage produced by fossil fuels, said Werani Zabula, spokesperson for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of the United Nations which assesses the state of global warming.
“Agriculture accounts for about 1/5 of current emissions,” Zabula said in an email. “The main drivers for agriculture are deforestation and animal agriculture, so the claim that animal agriculture – which is a subset of the numbers above – is the overall main driver is false.”
The UN panel says the energy sector accounts for 34% of all greenhouse gas emissions, followed by industry at 24%, then agriculture, forestry and land use at 22%.
Christina Cilento, associate policy researcher at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said most sources rank agriculture as the second largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, with fossil fuels taking the top spot.
The specific numbers vary, however, depending on what is considered part of agriculture. The production and management of livestock manure also produces greenhouse gases, according to Melissa Sullivan, spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency.
“If you define ‘animal agriculture’ as including all those things that happen after animals are raised, that would be a bigger slice of the pie – although still maybe not enough to get to #1,” Cilento told USA TODAY in an email.
A report by the European Circular Bioeconomy Policy Initiative says the food system is responsible for a third of global emissions after accounting for food processing, transport, packaging, retail and waste .
EPA data distributes all energy-related emissions to different economic sectors. As a result, agriculture appears to be a much larger contributor at 24% of global emissions. Yet power and heat generation is listed as the largest industry contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
Fact check: All mammals, including cattle, produce greenhouse gases
Our opinion: False
Based on our research, we rate the claim that animal agriculture is the biggest contributor to climate change FALSE. According to scientists, greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause of climate change, and the burning of fossil fuels is the main contributor to heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, but experts say it’s the second or third largest contributor – not the first.
Our fact-checking sources:
- Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, accessed November 23, Global Emissions
- Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, accessed November 29, IPCC Special Report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage
- Christina Cilento, November 23, email exchange with USA TODAY
- Climate Nexus, accessed November 23, Impact of Animal Agriculture on Climate Change
- EPA, accessed November 23, Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data
- EPA, accessed November 29, Overview of Greenhouse Gases
- EPA, accessed November 29, Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- Environmental Protection EPA Bioeconomy Policy Initiative, accessed November 29, Food systems are responsible for one-third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013, Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006, Livestock’s Long Shadow
- Our world in data, 6 November 2019, Food production is responsible for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions
- Our World in Data, accessed November 29, Emissions by Sector
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, accessed November 29, Special Report: Special Report on Climate and Land
- United Nations, accessed November 23, Causes and Effects of Climate Change
- Werani Zabula, November 25, email exchange with USA TODAY
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