Greenhouse gases drive climate change, wreaking havoc on public health and biodiversity while also causing considerable economic damage. Though taking climate action now may come with a small cost, the implications of failing to act are astronomical. Already commitments have been made by governments around the world and some first steps have been taken toward a carbon-neutral future. Yet leaders have ignored one industry that represents a significant chunk of emissions and goes largely unchecked: agriculture.
WHAT ARE GREENHOUSE GASES?
Though carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most well-known and abundant greenhouse gas, it is by no means the only one. In fact, there are three major greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide — and many other gases also contribute to the greenhouse effect. Though present in the atmosphere in smaller quantities than CO2, the impacts of methane and nitrous oxide, two gases emitted largely by food production systems, are significant. Collectively, these gases and the effects they are having on our climate system are pushing us toward a point of no return.
The industrial revolution marked the beginning of a significant increase in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, as people began burning coal and later oil in ever larger quantities to fuel machines and heat buildings. Today, concentrations have reached 400 parts per million, the highest figure for 3m years. Even if we completely stopped emitting CO2 today, it would likely take hundreds of years for the human-emitted CO2 to be removed from the atmosphere via natural processes.
Like CO2, concentrations of methane in the atmosphere have increased significantly over the last several centuries. Today the atmospheric concentration of methane is around 1,900 parts per billion, and growing. Methane is able to trap far more heat in the atmosphere than CO2 but it also breaks down faster, over decades rather than centuries. As a result, it is roughly 80 times more powerful over a time span of 20 years, and roughly 30 times more powerful over 100 years.
The rise in nitrous oxide in the atmosphere is closely linked to the increase in fertiliser use and intensive food production. Today, atmospheric concentrations have topped 330 parts per billion. Though the amount of nitrous oxide being emitted may seem insignificant when compared to carbon dioxide, the gas is almost 300 times more potent than CO2 over its lifetime of roughly 110 years.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF REDUCING GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS?
The impact that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will have on mitigating climate change is an obvious benefit, though there are several other benefits associated with reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are more specific, including improving public health, boosting the global economy, and maintaining biodiversity.
MITIGATES THE EFFECTS OF GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE
Perhaps the most significant outcome of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is mitigating the effects of climate change. Public health is already being threatened by polluted air, unimaginable damage is being caused by increasingly frequent natural disasters, and species are going extinct. If proper attention is not given to the problem and action is not pursued to significantly reduce the amounts of greenhouse gases being emitted, then these situations will continue to worsen until preserving our way of life is no longer an option.
IMPROVES PUBLIC HEALTH
The health impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change can be categorised as direct or indirect. The increasing risk of natural disasters that can be attributed to climate change is one example of an indirect public health risk, whereas air pollution and climate-driven migration can be considered direct. Already, 7 million people around the world are killed by air pollution every year and 99 percent of people globally breathe air that fails to meet the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines and contains a high level of pollutants.
Adequately reducing the quantities of greenhouse gases emitted is the only way to combat the many public health consequences associated with climate change. If trends are allowed to continue, by 2050 the number of heat-related deaths in the UK is likely to have gone up by 250 percent.
BOOSTS THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
The cost of climate change is high, in simple monetary terms as well as for quality of life. As natural disasters become more frequent and severe and desertification destroys once-fertile land, an increasing number of people are forced out of their homes and become climate refugees. In 2019 alone, 23.9 million people relocated due to climate-related disasters. In addition to the human cost of these disasters, the economic burden of rebuilding is substantial. When Bosnia and Herzegovina was swept with flooding, one picturesque town, Maglaj, faced damages that would require €85m to repair. The town’s total annual budget was €4m.
MAINTAINS PLANT AND ANIMAL DIVERSITY
Research from the University of Arizona suggests that one in three species of plants and animals could be faced with extinction by 2070 due to climate change. Many of the species included in the study had already gone extinct at one or more study sites in just a 10-year period.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF WE KEEP REDUCING OUR EMISSIONS?
The amount of greenhouse gases we emit has consistently trended upward. Continuing on this path will lead to irreversible damage. In order to avert severe consequences, it is essential that this trend be reversed. In 2015, 196 different countries signed the Paris Climate Agreement in recognition of the severity of the climate situation.
The goals of the Paris Climate Agreement are lofty, but necessary. The major one is to limit global warming to 1.5C, which will require that greenhouse gas emissions peak by 2025 and then go down by at least 43 percent by 2030. Following the adoption of the agreement, a number of countries have adopted net-zero carbon emissions goals with deadlines of 2050. If successful, these efforts will mitigate climate disaster.
ARE THERE DISADVANTAGES OF REDUCING GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS?
Some of the major barriers that face efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions are economic — many businesses and individuals stand to benefit from continued emissions. Moreover, greenhouse gases survive in the atmosphere for decades or hundreds of years, meaning that there will be a significant delay between actions and their impact. People feel like they are being asked to make sacrifices now for benefits later, which they cannot be entirely certain of. Though this acts as a deterrent for many, in fact there are many more immediate benefits to lowering emisssions, and the long-term cost of not reducing greenhouse gas emissions far outweighs the immediate economic benefits of ignoring this increasingly pressing issue, the effects of which will be felt by everyone.
The reality is that lowering greenhouse gas emissions has to happen, and the longer major polluters and policymakers wait to implement changes, the more expensive emissions reductions and mitigation of climate change become. Analysis from the International Monetary Fund shows that if carbon neutrality is pursued over eight years, economic growth is likely to slow by between 0.15 and 0.25 percent, and inflation is likely to increase by between 0.1 and 0.4 percent. The greater the delay before implementing the actions needed, the more severe the inflation and the greater the impact on economic growth.
HOW TO REDUCE GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS?
There are numerous ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ranging from the personal (eg reducing electricity use by unplugging appliances, turning off lights, and driving a hybrid or electric vehicle) to the corporate (eg shifting away from fossil fuels toward cleaner energy sources). One frequently overlooked industry that must change if we hope to lessen greenhouse gas emissions is agriculture, which is responsible for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.
When it comes to major greenhouse gas emitters within agriculture, the data shows that the worst offenders are products derived from animals, such as meat and dairy products. Strikingly, 60kgs of CO2-equivalent gases are produced for every 1kg of beef. Though transport does contribute, the gases mostly result from land use change and the time spent by the cows on the farm. For this reason, what we produce for food is by far more important than where it is produced. Eating local can help reduce emissions but choosing to consume vegan foods instead of meat has a much larger impact.
On a personal level, dietary change is one of the most impactful changes you can make. A diet that includes meat is responsible for twice as many greenhouse gas emissions per day than a vegetarian diet, and 2.5 times as many as a vegan one.
As time passes with little action being taken, the situation, and what will need to be done in order to prevent climate catastrophe, grows more severe. Greenhouse gases are driving climate change, killing millions of people a year, displacing millions more, driving a mass extinction of plant and animal species, and increasing the severity of natural disasters. If the issues of greenhouse gas emissions and their impacts are acted upon now, the cost to the global economy is smaller than if we continue to largely stay in a holding pattern. Either way climate change will need to be dealt with. As we have already found out, ignoring the issue will not work.
Agriculture contributes a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions and yet has not faced the same level of consideration as other industries that contribute heavily to the problem of climate change. In order to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement as well as country-specific commitments, the way we eat and produce our food has to be reformed. Especially in the Global North, diets that centre plant-derived foods must replace the meat- and dairy-heavy meals that are often commonplace today.