Global warming can be kept below 2C affordably through steep reductions in livestock production

June 8th, 2012


Global warming can be kept below 2C affordably through steep reductions in livestock production.


A new paper published in the International Journal of Climate Change by World Preservation Foundation (WPF) scientists finds that keeping global average temperature increases low enough to protect vulnerable nations and avoid crossing dangerous tipping points is possible by sharply reducing livestock production, which is a leading cause of shorter-lived climate forcers, and that this approach can reduce climate change mitigation costs up to 80 percent by 2050.


London, 5 June 2012 – A paper by WPF scientists published in the International Journal of Climate Change states that by addressing the largest source of shorter-lived climate forcers, livestock production, can help limit global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius.  Reducing livestock production and returning pastures to native forests, woodlands and grasslands is the most affordable and effective means of achieving this goal.    

“Shorter Lived Climate Forcers: Agriculture Sector and Land Clearing for Livestock” expands on a June 2011 report released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) titled “Integrated Assessment of Black Carbon and Tropospheric Ozone.” 

“The UNEP-WMO assessment is important because it highlights that CO2 alone will not keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for centuries.    If we limit black carbon, methane and ground level ozone, we can slow the heating in just a few years, averting dangerous tipping points.” WPF Executive Director Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop states.

Building on the work of UNEP-WMO, the WPF paper identifies livestock production as the largest human caused source of black carbon, methane and also the best means of controlling ground level ozone.  It further describes how steep cuts in livestock production could deliver up to 33% less methane, 30% less black carbon, and 33% less tropospheric ozone.

The combined effects of these reductions are projected to result in quickly halting the pace of climate change by reversing short term heating, as well as reducing long-term heating through the subsequent capture of carbon dioxide through reforestation.

Steep cuts in livestock production also bring longer-term climate benefits through the reduction of annual CO2 emissions of between 27 and 38 percent due to reductions in deforestation and open fires.   Around 20 years’ worth of legacy carbon dioxide emissions already in the atmosphere could also be captured and stored through re-vegetation and soil carbon re-stocking.

According to WPF Director Mark Galvin, there are significant financial benefits as well.  He states “The most viable option of addressing climate change and other environmental threats like biodiversity loss, deforestation and water scarcity is to move away from animal products.   The climate change mitigation costs alone can be reduced by up to 80 percent if all animal products are eliminated. This equates to a saving of US$32 trillion off the estimated US$40 trillion cost of mitigating climate change.”

He also stated that a 2009 Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency study found that up to 2,700 million hectares of pasture and 100 million ha of cropland would be freed up, resulting in a large carbon uptake from re-growing vegetation, in addition to the substantial methane and nitrous oxide emission reductions.

“Although most approaches to addressing the climate change impacts of livestock focus on capturing methane from manure, we find that the benefits of this approach will be very small because 90 percent of livestock methane emissions are from enteric fermentation.   Substituting livestock products with plant-based sources of nutrition therefore has a far greater impact on climate change,” Wedderburn-Bisshop states.

Reducing livestock also:

  • Sharply reduces global deforestation;
  • Reduces biodiversity loss by up to 60 percent;
  • Substantially reduces water usage;
  • Improves soils and reverses desertification;
  • Reduces up to 60 percent of reactive nitrogen and 65 percent of nitrous oxide.
  • Improves human health through the reversal of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, and therefore substantially reduces global healthcare costs.

“The do-nothing scenario on diets predicts that meat and dairy consumption will double by 2050.  This would be an environmental disaster for our planet,”  Galvin emphasized.  “By shifting towards plant-based nutrition, we are embracing a low cost, high impact solution for reversing the most significant environmental challenges of our time on both short- and long-term times scales.”

Galvin also stated: “We recommend that governments divert subsidies from meat and dairy to plant-based alternatives and also promote their climate, environmental and health benefits.  We also call for strong protection on forests, and taxes on the high water usage, emissions and black carbon from the meat and dairy sectors, to truly reflect the environmental cost of these products.”


Notes to editors

Shorter lived climate forcers

Greenhouse emissions are commonly compared by averaging their effect over 100 years.  This is fine for CO2, which lasts for centuries, but is very misleading for short lived emissions.  Over a 20 year period, yearly emissions of just three warming agents: methane, black carbon and tropospheric ozone, heat our world more than yearly carbon dioxide emissions.  Examining global warming potential over 20 years (GWP20) is more realistic because these climate forcers have a short life cycle in the atmosphere.


Methane warms almost as much as CO2 yearly emissions, but with a half-life of just seven years in the atmosphere.  This gives methane a GWP20 72 times that of CO2, more than three times the hundred year warming potential commonly quoted.

Black carbon (soot)

Black carbon lasts from one to four weeks in the atmosphere and has a GWP20 of 1600.  When black carbon lands on ice or snow it has a strong warming effect, responsible for 30% of Arctic warming.  Black carbon from open fires has been found in the Antarctic Peninsula, the fastest warming place on Earth.

Tropospheric Ozone

Tropospheric ozone warms the Earth as much as 20% of the CO2 warming, but it lasts for only 20 days.  The most effective means of reducing tropospheric ozone is by reducing methane.

Legacy carbon dioxide

Deforestation is responsible for 25-30% of global emissions.  60-80% of global deforestation is for livestock pasture and feed crops.

Reforestation and soil carbon re-stocking has the potential to draw down 20 years of CO2 emissions – far more and far cheaper than technical solutions.


For more information please contact:

Kian Tavakkoli, Media Spokesperson, on Tel: +27 (0)738344843
Email: [email protected]

Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop – Tel: +27 (0)782864727
Email: [email protected]

Full paper available at: and other material at