At COP27 world leaders have failed to address the climate and livestock debate thus failing to diffuse the misleading and dangerous narratives villainising livestock for climate change. Instead, livestock and livestock keepers are key to ensuring food, income and social security in the Global South. Recognising these roles is crucial to just climate actions.
Livestock has increasingly been pitched as the villain in discourses of climate change, favouring a techno-utopian shift to plant-based and synthetic diets instead. Many poor and marginal people around the world cannot afford to eliminate nutrient-dense animal-source foods from their diets. Anti-meat proclamations are elitist and ignore the many benefits that grazing animals offer within sustainable systems.
While world leaders skirted the issue, experts and advocates at the sidelines of COP27 provided evidence that sustainable livestock can play a critical role in climate adaptation, mitigation and justice. “At the COP27 summit, climate negotiators and governments alike should recognise that sustainable livestock can now play a vital role in delivering climate justice” wrote Semplice Nouala, head of the agriculture and food security division at the African Union Commission, in a poignant Al Jazeera article titled “Livestock is a form of climate justice in the Global South.’’
The advocacy around livestock at COP centred around three main points which are elaborated in the PASTRES report “Are livestock always bad for the planet?”
Rethinking climate assessments
Firstly, many of the popularly used figures to make a case against livestock are misinterpreted or misrepresented. For example, a FAO assessment shows that data comparing emissions from livestock and transportation tends to be exaggerated. While greenhouse gas emissions from livestock, in the form of methane and nitrous monoxide, are assessed at 14.5% of the total emissions over the lifecycle of the animal – including through feeding, processing and supply – the complementary figure for transport is unavailable. The livestock figure is often equated with the direct emissions from transport valued at 14%, while direct emissions from livestock is only estimated to be around 5%.
At the same time, carbon dioxide emissions from transport have a longer lasting impact on the environment than methane from livestock which decomposes in a few years.
Secondly, livestock systems across the world are different with different implications for climate.
At the COP27 side-event “The cow in the room: can sustainable livestock production deliver climate adaptation, mitigation, and food security?” Simeon Ehui, regional director for sustainable for Africa said, “The cow in Kansas is different from the cow in Kenya.”
Recognising these differences can channel appropriate climate action. For example, Africa should strive towards adaptation not mitigation pointed Bernard Kimoro from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperatives in Kenya, during the same event.
A nuanced approach to livestock that differentiates between diverse production systems was also endorsed by the latest mitigation report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in April, 2022.
Adopting a systems approach
Unlike lifecycle assessments, a systems approach sees livestock in context and recognises the many benefits offered by extensive and pastoral systems to the environment, such as improving soil carbon sequestration, protecting against wildfires, and enhancing biodiversity.
Many scientists have identified ways of maximising the benefits from livestock in such systems, such as through improving ways of feeding and managing manure. Investment through appropriate climate finance can help in reducing greenhouse gasses, and improving grazing and rangeland management.
Centring livestock keepers
Central to visions of farm-free futures is concerns of lands and livelihoods for smallholder farmers and pastoralists from the Global South. The livestock sector accounts for 30-50% of agricultural GDP in Africa, and supports the livelihood and food security for about 350 million people. Livestock serves as a reliable source of income and a valuable safety net for those poor farmers who contribute the least, and yet remain the worst affected by the climate crisis. Therefore, the ‘Africa COP’ seemed like an apt forum to call for centring livestock keepers for climate justice and environmental sustainability in the future.
The side-event “Livestock transitions: Global options and local realities for adaptation and mitigation” spoke about tapping into the knowledge and innovations of livestock keepers, who are in many ways already overcoming climate change, and making these practices more efficient and widespread.
Follow the campaign
Through the COP27 period, PASTRES promoted the report “Are livestock always bad for the planet?” and its briefing and infosheets. Blogs on these knowledge products can be found here:
– Are livestock always bad for the planet?
– Placing livestock in context through a systems approach
Updates are also available through the PASTRES Twitter handle @PASTRES_erc .