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Why no meat at the Paris climate talks?

Devinder Sharma writes: The cumulative impact of cattle rearing in Australia, transportation of cattle from the ranches down under to China, and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions alone is going to be enormous. And yet meat consumption has not been mentioned at Paris climate talks. The reason is simple. The western lifestyle has not to be disturbed.

Why was meat consumption not on the chopping block at Paris CoP 21?

Devinder Sharma

This particular news report caught my attention. A jumbo load of cattle – 150 in total – arrived on a Boeing 747 fight directly from Melbourne at the Chongqing airport in China just a day before the climate talks began at Paris. Chongqing is certainly far away from Paris, but it has a direct relation with the talks on climate change.

With China’s demand for beef consumption soaring, and with domestic laws making it mandatory for the animals to be slaughtered close to the place of consumption, Rabobank estimates an additional requirement of 2.2 million tonnes of beef a year. Bloomberg says the newly acquired taste for beef in China is likely to create a $ 60 billion market a year. Considering that the industrially-farmed livestock alone is responsible for 18 per cent greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), the cumulative impact of cattle rearing in Australia, transportation of cattle from the ranches down under to China, and the resulting lifestyle emissions from soaring demand for beef alone is going to be enormous.

And yet meat consumption has not been on the chopping block at the ongoing 21stConference of Parties (CoP) at Paris. The reason is simple. The western lifestyle has not to be disturbed.

A detailed report published by WorldWatch in 2009 showed “livestock and their byproducts actually account for at least 32,564 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, or 51 per cent of worldwide GHG emissions.” This report incorporated all the emissions from not only livestock rearing but also related activities. Now, this is nothing short of a disaster in making. All these years, I was under the impression that the international leadership would wake up to an environmental threat emanating from their own eating habits. But I was grossly mistaken. None of the leaders of the 150 countries who had assembled at Paris even mentioned reforming the diet as a possible solution to keeping temperatures much below the agreeable 1.5 degrees target.

Several projections point to a peak of 355 million tonnes of meat consumption likely to be attained by the year 2030. And if the consumption continues to soar, the world would require another 110 million tonnes more to reach the staggering figure of 465 million tonnes to satisfy the growing appetite by 2050. Even if the emissions from livestock farming are cut by 30 per cent as the FAO has projected, the sheer increase in the number of animals would raise the environmental footprint by a huge margin.

Considering that 40 per cent of the land under cultivation today is utilized for raising crops that primarily goes into feeding the animals, the resulting implications are going to be disastrous. I wonder where from the world would be producing food for human consumption if most of the cultivable lands go for feeding the animals. While the worry is how to feed the burgeoning human population, expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, I haven’t seen any concern being raised on how to feed 120 billion animals expected to be reared for meat cultivation in the same period. I am not sure of this is deliberate.

In addition, meat production requires huge quantities of water. This is what the FAO says: “The production of one kilogram of beef requires 15,414 litres of water on average. The water footprint of meat from sheep and goat (8,763 litres) is larger than that of pork (5,988 litres) or chicken (4,325 litres). The production of one kilogram of vegetables, on the contrary, requires 322 litres of water.”

This also brings me to the related and equally serious issue of air pollution from agriculture. Now don’t be startled when I say air pollution from agricultural practices. Using health studies and computer models, a study published in the science journal Nature shows that farming plays a bigger role than smog and is the second most important killer worldwide. Ammonia released from the farms mixes with the motor exhausts and the particles from coal-based plants making it a deadly combination.

Accordingly, air pollution from agriculture results in the death of 664,100 people every year. This is primarily because of the emissions from chemical fertilizers and animal wastes which release ammonia and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide alone is 300 times more potent than methane. Business as usual is not the way forward, as International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) had shown. Agriculture practices therefore need to immediately shift to agro-ecological methods but that’s a topic for a different day.

Let’s look at animal farming. If only intensive farming practices for feed cultivation, as well as industrial-farmed livestock rearing, were to undergo a phase out in the years to come the expected climatic turbulence would be far less than what is being feared. The focus therefore should have been on cutting down on meat consumption, laying out specific reduction targets to be attained by 2020 and thereafter. But then, probably no one wanted their dining plate to be on the negotiating table. The impression I get from all international talks on climate change is that it is the poor who must make a sacrifice. The lifestyle of the rich, howsoever damaging it may be for the climate, is non-negotiable.

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