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Animals must play a part in meeting Paris climate goals

by Polly Ericksen | International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)
Friday, 4 November 2016 12:20 GMT

Turkana men walk with their herd of cattle near Baragoy, Kenya Jan. 31, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We can shrink the carbon footprint of livestock, but we need to properly measure their emissions first

The good news is that the Paris Agreement to tackle global warming has come into force today ahead of the COP22 climate summit in Morocco, marking an unprecedented milestone in international cooperation to protect the planet.

The bad news is that the current pledges countries have made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as they stand, are insufficient to meet the goal of preventing global temperatures from increasing by more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. It’s like the world has signed up to the gym, but hasn’t made it there to exercise yet.

To make matters even more difficult, we must work towards this climate target at the same time as we tackle a whole host of other global development challenges - from ending hunger and reducing malnutrition to tackling poverty.

To be sure, this is no easy task. But one thing is certain: if we are to have any chance of success, one sector that we cannot ignore is livestock. This is true not only in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also when it comes to adapting global food production systems to deal with the impact of climate change.

The meat, milk and eggs that livestock give us remain key to addressing hunger and malnutrition. Today, there are more than 800 million people suffering from hunger and 2 billion people suffering from micronutrient deficiencies, which can lead to stunted growth, wasting and lifelong cognitive impairment.

In animal-source foods, we can find the high-quality protein and some fats and micronutrients – especially vitamin B12 – many are lacking in countries with high levels of undernourishment. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), ensuring daily consumption of just 20g of animal protein a day can stop malnutrition. As well as offering an invaluable source of sustenance to the poor, livestock are also essential to their livelihoods, with 1 billion poor people worldwide deriving their income from the sector.

However, despite these many benefits, it has also been estimated that the sector is responsible for 14.5 percent of human-generated emissions worldwide. The majority of these emissions come from cattle, which produce 65 percent of the greenhouse gases released by livestock.

There are many ways to reduce emissions and lower the carbon footprint of livestock - from not over-consuming in industrialised countries, to cutting down on food that is wasted by affluent consumers.

In developing countries, there is significant opportunity to reduce emissions from livestock systems and simultaneously improve their productivity.  These include improving the quality and quantity of animal feeds, rangeland management, animal health and manure management.

But we also need to be confident we are accurately measuring greenhouse gas emissions from livestock. Most developing countries currently rely on estimates generated for systems in North America, Europe or Australia.

But there are significant differences in how livestock are produced in those countries versus in Africa, much of Latin America and Asia. These differences, for instance in how livestock are fed, affect levels of greenhouse gas emissions. This means we have little accurate data on emissions from livestock in the developing world. Given such regional variations in production systems, we need to be prepared to recognise that livestock’s carbon footprint varies from region to region. 

Accurately measuring, reporting and verifying livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions remains difficult to do, making a comprehensive and global response elusive and ineffective. If we are to change livestock practices to deal with climate change and meet the pledges agreed in Paris last year, countries must have accurate and specific emissions data from the livestock sector.

The sector also plays an important role in helping those affected to adapt to the many impacts of climate change that are already underway. And while the livestock sector can do much to lower its environmental impact, it also offers “win-win” solutions that can help climate-proof the industry while becoming more efficient and productive.  

In semi-arid and arid regions where other agricultural solutions are not viable and where rising temperatures may make crop farming even riskier, livestock can help farmers build resilience. Dairy and eggs can be an additional source of income while animals are more resilient to short-term shocks, such as drought or floods, as well as being a valuable asset to be sold in emergencies.

Similarly, offering index-based insurance for livestock is another way of safeguarding farmers’ income against drought or other effects of climate change while also encouraging farmers to invest in improving productivity. Supporting farmers to manage their herds and develop drought and heat tolerance would help them cope with rising temperatures, and early warning forecast systems can be an effective way to prepare for conditions that affect the spread of disease.

It is imperative that those working to tackle climate change not only collaborate with the livestock sector but also acknowledge its positive impact on food, health and income security, particularly in the developing world.

By focusing on livestock, we can ensure we do more than lower greenhouse gas emissions. We can help safeguard the world’s broader development progress as well. 

ILRI is hosting a side event that will discuss tracking agricultural emissions at the Marrakesh climate talks on November 7.