Tag Archives: Land Use

Human growth robs other species of space

As human growth adds to our numbers and demands, other species’ survival chances shrink. Scientists can now name 1,700 creatures at ever greater risk.

LONDON, 11 March, 2019 − There is only one Earth, but human growth is ensuring that it carries steadily more passengers. And that leaves less and less room for humanity’s companions on board the planet.

The Nile lechwe is an antelope that lives in the swamps of Ethiopia and South Sudan. Its Linnaean name is Kobus megaceros and it stands a metre high at the shoulders so you couldn’t miss it. Except that you could.

That is because it is one of at least 1,700 species identified by biologists to be at risk from human action: quite simply, as humans take an ever-greater share of animal living space, the animals’ chances of survival dwindle rapidly.

So the Nile lechwe joins the Lombok cross frog of Indonesia (Oreophryne monticola) and the curve-billed reedhaunter (Limnornis curvirostris) that lives in the marshes of north-east Argentina to be at risk of extinction by 2070, simply because humankind will intrude on at least half of their geographic ranges.

“It is often the far-away demand that drives these losses – think tropical hardwoods, palm oil or soybeans …”

Biologists, conservationists and climate scientists have been warning for decades that the dangerous combination of human population growth and climate change driven by human-induced global warming puts whole ecosystems at risk, and will hasten the extinction of many species that are already shrinking in numbers.

These include many that underwrite the provision of food,  medicine, fabric for the world’s cities and air and water purification systems on which human civilisation is founded.

Most such warnings have been based on projections of economic growth, urban demand and climate change. US researchers approached the challenge in a different way.

They report in Nature Climate Change that they collected data on the geographic distributions of 19,400 species and combined this with four different projections of future changes in land use – a euphemism for scorched or felled forest, drained swamp, ploughed grassland and so on − in the next 50 years.

Shared responsibility

And they identified 1,700 species that, even with moderate changes in land use, will lose roughly a third to a half of their present habitat by 2070. This total includes 886 species of amphibian, 436 kinds of bird and 376 mammals. And this loss of living space accentuates the hazard to their lives and futures.

Many animal citizens of Central and East Africa, Mesoamerica, South America and Southeast Asia are particularly at risk. And, the authors warn, even though such losses would happen in national territories and involve species with limited range, the responsibility for their loss would be global.

“Losses in species populations can irreversibly hamper the functioning of ecosystems and human quality of life,” said Walter Jetz, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at Yale University in Connecticut, one of the authors.

“While biodiversity erosion in far-away parts of the planet may not seem to affect us directly, its consequences for human livelihood can reverberate globally. It is also often the far-away demand that drives these losses – think tropical hardwoods, palm oil or soybeans – thus making us all co-responsible.” − Climate News Network

As human growth adds to our numbers and demands, other species’ survival chances shrink. Scientists can now name 1,700 creatures at ever greater risk.

LONDON, 11 March, 2019 − There is only one Earth, but human growth is ensuring that it carries steadily more passengers. And that leaves less and less room for humanity’s companions on board the planet.

The Nile lechwe is an antelope that lives in the swamps of Ethiopia and South Sudan. Its Linnaean name is Kobus megaceros and it stands a metre high at the shoulders so you couldn’t miss it. Except that you could.

That is because it is one of at least 1,700 species identified by biologists to be at risk from human action: quite simply, as humans take an ever-greater share of animal living space, the animals’ chances of survival dwindle rapidly.

So the Nile lechwe joins the Lombok cross frog of Indonesia (Oreophryne monticola) and the curve-billed reedhaunter (Limnornis curvirostris) that lives in the marshes of north-east Argentina to be at risk of extinction by 2070, simply because humankind will intrude on at least half of their geographic ranges.

“It is often the far-away demand that drives these losses – think tropical hardwoods, palm oil or soybeans …”

Biologists, conservationists and climate scientists have been warning for decades that the dangerous combination of human population growth and climate change driven by human-induced global warming puts whole ecosystems at risk, and will hasten the extinction of many species that are already shrinking in numbers.

These include many that underwrite the provision of food,  medicine, fabric for the world’s cities and air and water purification systems on which human civilisation is founded.

Most such warnings have been based on projections of economic growth, urban demand and climate change. US researchers approached the challenge in a different way.

They report in Nature Climate Change that they collected data on the geographic distributions of 19,400 species and combined this with four different projections of future changes in land use – a euphemism for scorched or felled forest, drained swamp, ploughed grassland and so on − in the next 50 years.

Shared responsibility

And they identified 1,700 species that, even with moderate changes in land use, will lose roughly a third to a half of their present habitat by 2070. This total includes 886 species of amphibian, 436 kinds of bird and 376 mammals. And this loss of living space accentuates the hazard to their lives and futures.

Many animal citizens of Central and East Africa, Mesoamerica, South America and Southeast Asia are particularly at risk. And, the authors warn, even though such losses would happen in national territories and involve species with limited range, the responsibility for their loss would be global.

“Losses in species populations can irreversibly hamper the functioning of ecosystems and human quality of life,” said Walter Jetz, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at Yale University in Connecticut, one of the authors.

“While biodiversity erosion in far-away parts of the planet may not seem to affect us directly, its consequences for human livelihood can reverberate globally. It is also often the far-away demand that drives these losses – think tropical hardwoods, palm oil or soybeans – thus making us all co-responsible.” − Climate News Network

Amazon land rights face greatest threat

land rights amazon
land rights amazon

Failure to protect indigenous land rights in the Amazon region is undermining the safeguarding of forests and the reduction of emissions. 

SÃO PAULO, 19 October, 2016 – Ensuring forest people’s land rights in the Amazon region is a cheap and effective way of cutting both carbon emissions and deforestation, researchers say – but the obstacles are formidable.

A report from the World Resources Institute (WRI) offers new evidence that the modest investments needed to secure these rights will generate billions of dollars in returns – economically, socially and environmentally – for governments, investors and communities.

The report, Climate Benefits, Tenure Costs, quantifies the economic value of securing land rights for the indigenous communities who live in and protect forests, with a focus on Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia in South America, and implications for the rest of the world.

Previous WRI research has found that when indigenous peoples and communities have secure rights to land, deforestation rates and carbon emissions are often significantly reduced.

In the new report, matching analysis data shows that the average annual deforestation rates in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia were significantly lower in tenure-secure indigenous forests than in similar areas without secure tenure: 35% lower in Bolivia, 40% lower in Brazil, and 50% lower in Colombia. All three countries have large portions of the Amazon forest within their borders.

Yet although protecting indigenous land rights can help meet national emissions reduction commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change, only 21 of 197 intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) mention community-based land tenure, and only one sets a measurable target for the expansion of secure tenure rights.

Land grabbers

In Brazil itself, there is mounting pressure from ranchers, loggers and land grabbers who are invading indigenous areas, whether they are officially recognised or not.

Based on satellite images from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which monitors the Amazon region, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) has just issued a warning on the website of the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA) that, as a result of that pressure, deforestation inside indigenous reserves is rising.

The images show that between January and September this year, an area of 188,000 sq km was cleared – the equivalent of around 25,000 football fields. This is almost three times the 67,000 sq km deforested in the whole of 2015.

Together, the 419 indigenous areas located within the Brazilian Amazon region cover more than 1 million sq km. So far, what has been cleared amounts to only 2% of the total, but non-governmental organisations fear that the barrier to the advance of agriculture, logging and land grabbers, which is formed by the existence of this mosaic of indigenous areas and conservation areas, is beginning to collapse.

“Not only is securing land tenure the right thing to do, it’s one of the world’s most cost-effective climate mitigation strategies”

Large-scale government dam building projects have also contributed to higher rates of deforestation. Cachoeira Seca, the most deforested of all the indigenous areas, is near the recently built Belo Monte hydro-electric dam.

Yet the WRI report shows that the modest investments needed to secure land rights for indigenous peoples in the Amazon could generate billions of dollars in economic, social and environmental returns for governments, investors and communities.

The total estimated benefits of securing indigenous lands in Brazil are US$523bn–$1,165tn, in Bolivia $54–$119bn, and in Colombia $123–$277bn over the next 20 years, after factoring in global carbon benefits and ecosystem conservation.

“We now know that there is a clear economic case to be made for ensuring that indigenous peoples have secure rights to their land,” says Andrew Steer, president and CEO of WRI. “Not only is securing land tenure the right thing to do, it’s one of the world’s most cost-effective climate mitigation strategies.

“National governments should take note – and move quickly – to secure indigenous lands and incorporate land rights into their climate change strategies and commitments to the Paris Agreement.”

Securing land rights

The WRI reckons that the cost of securing indigenous land rights in the Amazon is just a few dollars per hectare of forest per year – less than 1% of the total economic benefits. The report also finds that securing indigenous and community lands is cost-effective when compared with other climate mitigation options such as carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Analysis shows that using CCS to reduce emissions costs 5-29 times more in coal-fired power plants and 7-42 times more in natural gas-fired power plants than achieving the same emissions reductions through securing indigenous forestland tenure. And CCS technology has yet to be proved workable at scale.

“Indigenous peoples and local communities have a long history of using natural resources wisely and adapting to the changing climate in an integrated and sustainable manner,” says Naoko Ishii, CEO and chair of the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

“Protecting and enhancing the land rights of indigenous peoples is a necessary step towards greater economic prosperity and safeguarding our global commons.”

Unfortunately, policymakers in Brazil continue to ignore the benefits of preserving indigenous lands, even when they are so clearly spelled out.

Instead, FUNAI’s funding – and therefore its ability to protect indigenous areas – has been drastically cut under the recent tough austerity measures introduced by the federal government to tackle economic recession. And if the WRI report is right, this is in every sense a false economy. – Climate News Network

Failure to protect indigenous land rights in the Amazon region is undermining the safeguarding of forests and the reduction of emissions. 

SÃO PAULO, 19 October, 2016 – Ensuring forest people’s land rights in the Amazon region is a cheap and effective way of cutting both carbon emissions and deforestation, researchers say – but the obstacles are formidable.

A report from the World Resources Institute (WRI) offers new evidence that the modest investments needed to secure these rights will generate billions of dollars in returns – economically, socially and environmentally – for governments, investors and communities.

The report, Climate Benefits, Tenure Costs, quantifies the economic value of securing land rights for the indigenous communities who live in and protect forests, with a focus on Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia in South America, and implications for the rest of the world.

Previous WRI research has found that when indigenous peoples and communities have secure rights to land, deforestation rates and carbon emissions are often significantly reduced.

In the new report, matching analysis data shows that the average annual deforestation rates in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia were significantly lower in tenure-secure indigenous forests than in similar areas without secure tenure: 35% lower in Bolivia, 40% lower in Brazil, and 50% lower in Colombia. All three countries have large portions of the Amazon forest within their borders.

Yet although protecting indigenous land rights can help meet national emissions reduction commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change, only 21 of 197 intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) mention community-based land tenure, and only one sets a measurable target for the expansion of secure tenure rights.

Land grabbers

In Brazil itself, there is mounting pressure from ranchers, loggers and land grabbers who are invading indigenous areas, whether they are officially recognised or not.

Based on satellite images from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which monitors the Amazon region, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) has just issued a warning on the website of the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA) that, as a result of that pressure, deforestation inside indigenous reserves is rising.

The images show that between January and September this year, an area of 188,000 sq km was cleared – the equivalent of around 25,000 football fields. This is almost three times the 67,000 sq km deforested in the whole of 2015.

Together, the 419 indigenous areas located within the Brazilian Amazon region cover more than 1 million sq km. So far, what has been cleared amounts to only 2% of the total, but non-governmental organisations fear that the barrier to the advance of agriculture, logging and land grabbers, which is formed by the existence of this mosaic of indigenous areas and conservation areas, is beginning to collapse.

“Not only is securing land tenure the right thing to do, it’s one of the world’s most cost-effective climate mitigation strategies”

Large-scale government dam building projects have also contributed to higher rates of deforestation. Cachoeira Seca, the most deforested of all the indigenous areas, is near the recently built Belo Monte hydro-electric dam.

Yet the WRI report shows that the modest investments needed to secure land rights for indigenous peoples in the Amazon could generate billions of dollars in economic, social and environmental returns for governments, investors and communities.

The total estimated benefits of securing indigenous lands in Brazil are US$523bn–$1,165tn, in Bolivia $54–$119bn, and in Colombia $123–$277bn over the next 20 years, after factoring in global carbon benefits and ecosystem conservation.

“We now know that there is a clear economic case to be made for ensuring that indigenous peoples have secure rights to their land,” says Andrew Steer, president and CEO of WRI. “Not only is securing land tenure the right thing to do, it’s one of the world’s most cost-effective climate mitigation strategies.

“National governments should take note – and move quickly – to secure indigenous lands and incorporate land rights into their climate change strategies and commitments to the Paris Agreement.”

Securing land rights

The WRI reckons that the cost of securing indigenous land rights in the Amazon is just a few dollars per hectare of forest per year – less than 1% of the total economic benefits. The report also finds that securing indigenous and community lands is cost-effective when compared with other climate mitigation options such as carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Analysis shows that using CCS to reduce emissions costs 5-29 times more in coal-fired power plants and 7-42 times more in natural gas-fired power plants than achieving the same emissions reductions through securing indigenous forestland tenure. And CCS technology has yet to be proved workable at scale.

“Indigenous peoples and local communities have a long history of using natural resources wisely and adapting to the changing climate in an integrated and sustainable manner,” says Naoko Ishii, CEO and chair of the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

“Protecting and enhancing the land rights of indigenous peoples is a necessary step towards greater economic prosperity and safeguarding our global commons.”

Unfortunately, policymakers in Brazil continue to ignore the benefits of preserving indigenous lands, even when they are so clearly spelled out.

Instead, FUNAI’s funding – and therefore its ability to protect indigenous areas – has been drastically cut under the recent tough austerity measures introduced by the federal government to tackle economic recession. And if the WRI report is right, this is in every sense a false economy. – Climate News Network

Eat a plant and spare a tree

A less meat-intensive diet is essential for the sake of wildlife and forests and to slow climate change, says a report by UK-based researchers. LONDON, 31 August 2014 – Say goodbye to the steaks. Forget the foie gras. Put that pork chop away (assuming you can afford any of them). UK-based scientists say eating less meat is a vital part of tackling climate change. A study published in Nature Climate Change says that on present trends food production on its own will reach – and perhaps exceed – the global targets for total greenhouse gas emissions in 2050. Healthier diets – defined as meaning lower meat and dairy consumption – and reduced food waste are among the solutions needed to ensure food security and avoid dangerous climate change, the study says. More people, with more of us wanting meat-heavy Western diets, mean increasing farm yields will not meet the demands of an expected 9.6 billion humans. So we shall have to cultivate more land. This, the authors say, will mean more deforestation, more carbon emissions and further biodiversity loss, while extra livestock will raise methane levels.

Inefficient converters

Without radical changes, they expect cropland to expand by 42% by 2050 and fertiliser use by 45% (over 2009 levels). A further tenth of the world’s pristine tropical forests would disappear by mid-century. All this would cause GHG emissions from food production to increase by almost 80% by 2050 – roughly equal to the target GHG emissions by then for the entire global economy. They think halving food waste and managing demand for particularly environmentally-damaging food products – mainly from animals –  “might mitigate some” GHG emissions. “It is imperative to find ways to achieve global food security without expanding crop or pastureland,” said the lead researcher, Bojana Bajzelj, from the University of Cambridge’s department of engineering, who wrote the study with colleagues from Cambridge’s departments of geography and plant sciences and the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences. “The average efficiency of livestock converting plant feed to meat is less than 3%, and as we eat more meat, more arable cultivation is turned over to producing feedstock for animals… Agricultural practices are not necessarily at fault here – but our choice of food is.”

Squandered resources

This measure of efficiency is based on the units used in the study, which are grams of carbon in the biomass material, plant or meat. The team created a model that compares different scenarios for 2050, including some based on maintaining current trends. Another examines the closing of “yield gaps”. These gaps, between crop yields from best practice farming and actual average yields, exist everywhere but are widest in developing countries – particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The researchers advocate closing the gaps through sustainable intensification of farming. But even then projected food demand will still demand additional land and more water and fertilisers – so the impact on emissions and biodiversity remains. Food waste occurs at all stages in the food chain, caused in developing countries by poor storage and transport and in the north by wasteful consumption. This squanders resources, especially energy, the authors say.

“As well as encouraging sustainable agriculture, we need to re-think what we eat”

Yield gap closure alone still shows a GHG increase of just over 40% by 2050. Closing yield gaps and halving food waste shows emissions increasing by 2%. But with healthy diets added too, the model suggests that agricultural GHG levels could fall by 48% from their 2009 level. The team says replacing diets containing too much food, especially emission-intensive meat and dairy products, with an average balanced diet avoiding excessive consumption of sugars, fats, and meat products, significantly reduces pressures on the environment even further. It says this “average” balanced diet is “a relatively achievable goal for most. For example, the figures included two 85g portions of red meat and five eggs per week, as well as a portion of poultry a day.” Co-author Professor Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen said: “Unless we make some serious changes in food consumption trends, we would have to completely decarbonise the energy and industry sectors to stay within emissions budgets that avoid dangerous climate change. “That is practically impossible – so, as well as encouraging sustainable agriculture, we need to re-think what we eat.” – Climate News Network

A less meat-intensive diet is essential for the sake of wildlife and forests and to slow climate change, says a report by UK-based researchers. LONDON, 31 August 2014 – Say goodbye to the steaks. Forget the foie gras. Put that pork chop away (assuming you can afford any of them). UK-based scientists say eating less meat is a vital part of tackling climate change. A study published in Nature Climate Change says that on present trends food production on its own will reach – and perhaps exceed – the global targets for total greenhouse gas emissions in 2050. Healthier diets – defined as meaning lower meat and dairy consumption – and reduced food waste are among the solutions needed to ensure food security and avoid dangerous climate change, the study says. More people, with more of us wanting meat-heavy Western diets, mean increasing farm yields will not meet the demands of an expected 9.6 billion humans. So we shall have to cultivate more land. This, the authors say, will mean more deforestation, more carbon emissions and further biodiversity loss, while extra livestock will raise methane levels.

Inefficient converters

Without radical changes, they expect cropland to expand by 42% by 2050 and fertiliser use by 45% (over 2009 levels). A further tenth of the world’s pristine tropical forests would disappear by mid-century. All this would cause GHG emissions from food production to increase by almost 80% by 2050 – roughly equal to the target GHG emissions by then for the entire global economy. They think halving food waste and managing demand for particularly environmentally-damaging food products – mainly from animals –  “might mitigate some” GHG emissions. “It is imperative to find ways to achieve global food security without expanding crop or pastureland,” said the lead researcher, Bojana Bajzelj, from the University of Cambridge’s department of engineering, who wrote the study with colleagues from Cambridge’s departments of geography and plant sciences and the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences. “The average efficiency of livestock converting plant feed to meat is less than 3%, and as we eat more meat, more arable cultivation is turned over to producing feedstock for animals… Agricultural practices are not necessarily at fault here – but our choice of food is.”

Squandered resources

This measure of efficiency is based on the units used in the study, which are grams of carbon in the biomass material, plant or meat. The team created a model that compares different scenarios for 2050, including some based on maintaining current trends. Another examines the closing of “yield gaps”. These gaps, between crop yields from best practice farming and actual average yields, exist everywhere but are widest in developing countries – particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The researchers advocate closing the gaps through sustainable intensification of farming. But even then projected food demand will still demand additional land and more water and fertilisers – so the impact on emissions and biodiversity remains. Food waste occurs at all stages in the food chain, caused in developing countries by poor storage and transport and in the north by wasteful consumption. This squanders resources, especially energy, the authors say.

“As well as encouraging sustainable agriculture, we need to re-think what we eat”

Yield gap closure alone still shows a GHG increase of just over 40% by 2050. Closing yield gaps and halving food waste shows emissions increasing by 2%. But with healthy diets added too, the model suggests that agricultural GHG levels could fall by 48% from their 2009 level. The team says replacing diets containing too much food, especially emission-intensive meat and dairy products, with an average balanced diet avoiding excessive consumption of sugars, fats, and meat products, significantly reduces pressures on the environment even further. It says this “average” balanced diet is “a relatively achievable goal for most. For example, the figures included two 85g portions of red meat and five eggs per week, as well as a portion of poultry a day.” Co-author Professor Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen said: “Unless we make some serious changes in food consumption trends, we would have to completely decarbonise the energy and industry sectors to stay within emissions budgets that avoid dangerous climate change. “That is practically impossible – so, as well as encouraging sustainable agriculture, we need to re-think what we eat.” – Climate News Network

Livestock diet ‘can cut GHG emissions’

Limiting changes in the way we use land may be a better way slowing the contribution of livestock to climate change than reducing meat consumption, an international research team says. LONDON, 25 February – Here’s a way to make cattle emit lower volumes of methane through their digestive tracts: give the beasts a higher-quality diet. That way, you get more stock on less grassland, get improved yields per hectare and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to new research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “There is a lot of discussion about the reduction of meat in the diet as a way to reduce emissions,” says Petr Havlik of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. “But our results show that targeting the production side of agriculture is a much more efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” This will provoke some argument, and in any case seems counter-intuitive. Campaigners have been arguing for decades that livestock farming is in many though not all regions an inefficient way to produce nourishment: grain, pulses, fruits and vegetables deliver greater outputs of calories and proteins at much lower overall costs in water, energy and emissions. Farm animals are responsible for 12% of greenhouse gas emissions and, as the poorer nations develop, demand for meat and dairy protein tends to rise, so emissions are expected to increase.

Production economics

Volume for volume, methane or natural gas is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and researchers in Europe and the US have begun to consider ways of reducing or at least limiting methane discharges from either or both ends of billions of the planet’s grazing animals. But Havlink and colleagues from Africa, the Caribbean, Australia, Europe and the US think the answer lies in the changing economics of production. Livestock provide a third of the protein in human diets: in the developing world oxen, donkeys and buffalos also deliver haulage, manure and regular income. Around 30% of the global land area is used to rear livestock. Between 1980 and 2000, 83% of the expansion of agricultural land in the tropics was at the expense of the tropical forests. A lot of this space is devoted to cattle, sheep and goats. Increasing quantities of maize and soya are also being converted to animal feed. So the problem is not likely to go away. As land prices rise, there is pressure to stock more animals and buy in high-density fodder, to increase yield and to deliver quicker returns. So the new research proposes that both the increase in the cost of land, and the still-rising yields per hectare from croplands, will lead to richer diets for animals: this in turn would pay off in greater returns for the farmers, higher yields for people and – because livestock diets would be lower in cellulose and richer in energy – lower emissions of methane from the flatulent animals.

Better option

The scientists argue that by 2030 the change to more efficient farming could cut emissions by 736 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. That, they suggest, could happen anyway, because it pays farmers to do such things. If political and economic measures were taken to accelerate such changes – and at the same time reduce the conversion of forest to farmland – then the world could save 3,223 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year. The real target in all this is not the livestock, but the change in land use. Stringent climate change policies, were they ever to be enforced or even introduced by the governments of the world, could constrain the food available to a swelling population. The researchers argue that it would be five to 10 times more efficient and effective to reduce the changes in land use – to stop burning and clearing forests to make new grazing land. All this involves complex economic reasoning, and the use of economic metrics such as “total abatement calorie cost” and “marginal abatement costs”, but a global package of measures that included investment, trade and education could reduce total emissions from the farms and cattle sheds by 25%. “From the livestock sector perspective, limiting land use change seems the cheapest option both in terms of the economic cost and in terms of impact on food availability,” says Havlik. – Climate News Network

Limiting changes in the way we use land may be a better way slowing the contribution of livestock to climate change than reducing meat consumption, an international research team says. LONDON, 25 February – Here’s a way to make cattle emit lower volumes of methane through their digestive tracts: give the beasts a higher-quality diet. That way, you get more stock on less grassland, get improved yields per hectare and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to new research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “There is a lot of discussion about the reduction of meat in the diet as a way to reduce emissions,” says Petr Havlik of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. “But our results show that targeting the production side of agriculture is a much more efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” This will provoke some argument, and in any case seems counter-intuitive. Campaigners have been arguing for decades that livestock farming is in many though not all regions an inefficient way to produce nourishment: grain, pulses, fruits and vegetables deliver greater outputs of calories and proteins at much lower overall costs in water, energy and emissions. Farm animals are responsible for 12% of greenhouse gas emissions and, as the poorer nations develop, demand for meat and dairy protein tends to rise, so emissions are expected to increase.

Production economics

Volume for volume, methane or natural gas is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and researchers in Europe and the US have begun to consider ways of reducing or at least limiting methane discharges from either or both ends of billions of the planet’s grazing animals. But Havlink and colleagues from Africa, the Caribbean, Australia, Europe and the US think the answer lies in the changing economics of production. Livestock provide a third of the protein in human diets: in the developing world oxen, donkeys and buffalos also deliver haulage, manure and regular income. Around 30% of the global land area is used to rear livestock. Between 1980 and 2000, 83% of the expansion of agricultural land in the tropics was at the expense of the tropical forests. A lot of this space is devoted to cattle, sheep and goats. Increasing quantities of maize and soya are also being converted to animal feed. So the problem is not likely to go away. As land prices rise, there is pressure to stock more animals and buy in high-density fodder, to increase yield and to deliver quicker returns. So the new research proposes that both the increase in the cost of land, and the still-rising yields per hectare from croplands, will lead to richer diets for animals: this in turn would pay off in greater returns for the farmers, higher yields for people and – because livestock diets would be lower in cellulose and richer in energy – lower emissions of methane from the flatulent animals.

Better option

The scientists argue that by 2030 the change to more efficient farming could cut emissions by 736 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. That, they suggest, could happen anyway, because it pays farmers to do such things. If political and economic measures were taken to accelerate such changes – and at the same time reduce the conversion of forest to farmland – then the world could save 3,223 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year. The real target in all this is not the livestock, but the change in land use. Stringent climate change policies, were they ever to be enforced or even introduced by the governments of the world, could constrain the food available to a swelling population. The researchers argue that it would be five to 10 times more efficient and effective to reduce the changes in land use – to stop burning and clearing forests to make new grazing land. All this involves complex economic reasoning, and the use of economic metrics such as “total abatement calorie cost” and “marginal abatement costs”, but a global package of measures that included investment, trade and education could reduce total emissions from the farms and cattle sheds by 25%. “From the livestock sector perspective, limiting land use change seems the cheapest option both in terms of the economic cost and in terms of impact on food availability,” says Havlik. – Climate News Network