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Climate chicanery October 30, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
Tags: , , , , ,

More fodder for global warming skeptics comes from a report by two World Bank affiliates in the November-December issue of World Watch. The article, “Livestock and Climate Change,” does not deny the reality of global warming or the role of livestock in accelerating it, as presented in the 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s report Livestock’s Long Shadow. Rather, authors Goodland and Anhang assert that the UN FAO report, which is the definitive study of this topic, understates the volume of livestock greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by a whopping 400%. Which makes the climate change researchers at the FAO – and people like me who have relied on their analysis – look like idiots.

But if the FAO report really is massively wrong, out the truth must come, regardless of the resulting damage to the credibility of climate research. So, are Goodland and Anhang courageously exposing a botched analysis, or disingenuously furthering the anti-meat cause with a botched analysis of their own?

First, the sniff test. Goodland and Anhang’s revised GHG estimates imply that livestock are responsible for 51% of anthropogenic global warming! Really, with all our heavy manufacturing in industries from construction to apparel? And all the clever ways we move without actually moving, from elevators to 747s? And all the heating and air conditioning that leaks out our doors and windows? And the long showers and the dishwashers? And (let’s not forget) all that breathing we do? Over half of our emissions come just from livestock? Intuition is not in Goodland and Anhang’s favor.

But let’s dig into the science. Their first point is that the FAO estimates don’t include livestock breathing as a source of CO2 emissions. True, and the FAO isn’t as clear as it could be on why they shouldn’t be included. Stephen Walsh provides an accessible explanation: “the normal fate of a plant is to make way to new plants by dying, decaying and releasing the carbon it absorbed from the atmosphere back to the atmosphere mostly as CO2.  Whether the release of CO2 is facilitated by a large animal’s digestive system or by insects and bacteria in the soil doesn’t matter.” In other words, livestock breathing is just one way plants release carbon in their normal life cycle. If the livestock didn’t exist, plants would do it on their own. (Here is Walsh’s full analysis.)

And if you did think that livestock breathing emissions should be added back into total emissions, you should also add human breathing emissions back in. So when Goodland and Anhang conclude that livestock emissions are 51% of anthropogenic emissions, they are conveniently neglecting another major source, thereby incorrectly inflating the proportion that comes from livestock.  

Next the authors tackle land use. They acknowledge that the FAO counts emissions from converting land from forest to livestock use, but say the estimate is too low because it doesn’t count emissions from all the pre-existing land used to support livestock, which could instead be used to grow climate-friendly biofuels. That’s like saying we should count my bathroom floor as a GHG emitter, because I’m not currently growing biofuels on it. Nutty.

Then the authors get into the tricky business of trying to figure out how to appropriately convert units of methane, which is a GHG released by livestock as they burp, fart, and poop, to CO2-equivalent units. (Emissions of different gases have to be converted to CO2-equivalent units so they can be added together to get a picture of total emissions.) Methane is a far more potent GHG than CO2, but CO2 lasts much longer in the atmosphere. Therefore, the shorter the timeframe you choose to analyze, the worse methane emissions look relative to CO2. Goodland and Anhang suggest that instead of using the 100-year timeframe proposed by the FAO, we analyze emissions over 20 years. This triples how bad methane emissions look once they’re converted to CO2-equivalent units. Here, neither the FAO nor the authors is correct, and neither is incorrect. The choice of timeframe is subjective – if you’re interested in short-term effects of emissions, you’ll choose a shorter timeframe, and if you’re interested in impact over several generations, you’ll choose a longer timeframe. Certainly it’s disingenuous to suggest, as the authors do, that the FAO understates emissions. The FAO is just studying a longer timeframe.

Then the authors have the nerve to avoid recalibrating methane emissions from non-livestock sources as they did for livestock, saying it requires “further work.” So, just as they did with livestock breathing emissions, they inflate livestock methane emissions but conveniently neglect to inflate non-livestock methane emissions. Then of course the percent of emissions from livestock looks astronomical.

Finally, the authors have a catch-all “other” category for miscellaneous emissions they claim the FAO understates. The rationale for increasing the estimates of these “other” categories is often that the FAO is using old information – from the 1990s and early 2000s, mostly. But we know that livestock inventories have increased since then, so we know livestock emissions must have increased too, the authors argue. Yes. And, I would add, we also know that the Chinese are driving a hell of a lot more cars, so emissions from the automotive category should increase. And flying more, and consuming more imported designer clothes… Again, if you’re going to increase livestock emissions to more accurately capture what’s happening in the year 2009, you have to increase all these other categories of emissions as well. But Goodland and Anhang don’t, and that’s why they come up with the eyeball-popping and totally false conclusion that over 50% of current GHG emissions come from livestock.

In sum, we already knew that eating meat was a big driver of global warming. No need to bolster the case with inflated numbers and trumped-up analysis. But thanks, Goodland and Anhang, for making climate change research an easy target for all those naysayers out there.


1. maplesyrup21 - October 30, 2009

Interesting post !

2. Kyle - December 1, 2009

Great analysis of this article. When I came across it on HuffPo (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathy-freston/top-10-recent-development_b_372351.html) I had to give it a read.

Like yours, my Sniff Test Alarm went off, and I did some searching and found, among others, your thoughtful commentary.

Thanks for doing the legwork!

3. Worldwatcher - December 3, 2009

Angelique, the FAO researchers were not climate change researchers but livestock specialists. If what you call chicanery were really so, then I doubt that the FAO would have solicited this follow-up piece by the authors of the World Watch article: http://wellfedworld.org/PDF/FAOConsult12-09.pdf

Angelique - December 4, 2009

Hi Worldwatcher,

Thanks for alerting me to this report. Unfortunately it does not bolster my confidence in the original World Watch analysis. While the report recognizes the heavy coverage their article got in the press, it does not respond to any of the challenges that were posed by people like myself and Stephen Walsh. The report simply repeats one component of the original argument – that pre-existing land set aside for animal agriculture has been overlooked as a source of GHGs. As noted in my post, it is disingenuous to count any land as a source of GHGs simply because it isn’t currently being used to offset GHGs. If we did so, we’d have to count my bathroom floor as a source of GHGs.

The report does not even mention the most egregious errors in the World Watch article – including livestock emissions from breathing, digestion, etc. while not including the same emissions from other sources (humans and other animals). Mathematically, this inflates the percent of emissions coming from livestock.

I can’t judge the qualifications of the World Watch researchers vs the FAO’s, but until someone defends their actual analysis against challenges like these, I simply cannot take it seriously.

Keith Akers - December 5, 2009

Angelique and WorldWatcher,

I agree that I do not see many of these objections answered in the few public comments they’ve made in response to the various criticisms that have been made. My impression is that they did not really anticipate the response and so all we are hearing right now are the criticisms. If we want to know the response we have to come up with it ourselves, or wait and see what Goodland and Anhang say later. Here goes:

As to not including breathing from other animals, these other animals are not “human caused” like livestock. Humans didn’t cause the elephants, so elephant breathing is a GHG emission, but not human-caused. BTW, Lester Brown says that 98% of land-based vertebrates are humans, their livestock, and their pets, so I don’t think it would be that much anyway.

As to not including breathing from humans, this sounds like an accounting problem. I agree that it should be counted somehow. But what can I do about it? Hold my breath?

So we might want to create a separate category of human-caused GHG emissions called “GHG emissions we cannot possibly ever do anything about except by dying.”

On the other hand, I think it would be legitimate to count breathing due to humans born due to overpopulation, although you’d get into endless arguments about at what point overpopulation begins (2 billion? 4 billion? etc.). So it would be interesting to know what the ratio is.

Just some thoughts. All the best –


4. Worldwatcher - December 4, 2009

Angelique, it does makes sense to count carbon absorption foregone in bathrooms. Only all the bathrooms in the world would likely occupy only a corner of the state of New Jersey, which doesn’t begin to compare to the land set aside for livestock and feed production.

Anyway, I wonder whether when you were at Princeton, you ever ran across or agreed with Peter Singer. In case you haven’t yet seen, he cites the 51% estimate in World Watch at http://www.themonthly.com.au/books-peter-singer-cold-turkey-jonathan-safran-foer-s-eating-animals-2173, echoing the prior endorsement by Barry Brook and Geoff Russell at http://theenergycollective.com/TheEnergyCollective/51642.

So Walsh can claim that he’s identified errors in the World Watch article, but they are not errors. All respiration is indeed a source of carbon, as per Table 3.2 of Livestock’s Long Shadow. There is controversy about how to count that carbon, but that does not make counting it under one column rather than another an error. Similarly, Worldwatch has posted a reason why the World Watch article didn’t count non-livestock methane; and if you asked the authors, then you would understand even better. But anyway, you can rest assured that the World Bank would not have allowed any of its employees to have their name on an article that was not extremely thoroughly peer reviewed, by specialists with much more appropriate credentials than Mr. Walsh. And reputable organizations such as the FAO, World Business Council on Sustainable Development, New York Times, Reuters, etc. would not have taken the World Watch article as seriously as they have if it was truly as flawed as you’ve suggested.

5. Guillaume - December 4, 2009

First of all, all bathrooms in the US per data provided by the US Census make up about 500 square miles or 6% of the state of New Jersey. The world population is 22x larger than the US population, so if the bathroom to people ratio were constant, the total size of all bathrooms in the world would be the size of the state of Hawaii.

In the links you provided, Singer, Brook and Russell indeed quote the report. But quoting is not the same as endorsing, and there is no indication in their articles that they have validated the data in World Watch article on their own and therefore can fully support its conclusion (in fact, Brook states that while he thinks that the 51% might be reasonable, he’s not sure about it – “While I think it’s too early to judge the robustness of the WorldWatch number, I expect it will eventually be judged reasonably close to the mark.”). They are merely stating what the article says, not too dissimilar from what a news agency like Reuters will report (which by the way does not employ any academics that would validate the scientific claims of the articles they report on).

We should also keep in mind that peer reviews and the fact that different publications quoted the article is not guarantee of its validity and it certainly does not eliminate the need for us to think critically on our own. In the medical world, for example, articles are regularly published in scientific journals – after going through a peer review – only to be refuted by other researchers – whose articles also go through a peer review. And you only need to think of the current debate on health care to realize that “expert opinions” are not to be taken at face value.

There are valid questions raised by Angelique and Walsh, and I would expect any reputable academic to rise to the challenge and address these questions. Until that happens, I think that the validity of World Watch article’s claim remains doubtful.

6. Worldwatcher - December 4, 2009

Guillaume, I’d be interested in seeing how you’ve calculated 500 square miles of bathrooms in the US. Anyway, I’m sure you can imagine that most of the world doesn’t have bathrooms like those in the US.

Obviously Brook and Russelll are not merely stating what the article says; they are stating that the article is likely correct.

If you would compare the credentials of Goodland and Anhang, Angelique and Walsh, and the authors of Livestock’s Long Shadow for the purposes of studying livestock-related GHGs, then you would easily be able to see who is more qualified than the others.

Let’s take one major specific piece of Angelique’s criticism, and I’ll show you how her label of “chicanery” fails; and I assure you I could do the same with the rest of her criticism. Take her criticism on counting livestock breathing; then scroll down to Matthew S.’s entry dated November 30 entitled “World Watch Report” at the following url, and see what you think: http://www.green2cool.org/group/vegcliamtealliance?groupId=2691096%3AGroup%3A3017&page=1&xg_source=msg_com_group#c_e14

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