The elephant in the room – or is it a cow?
Of all the sectors contributing to anthropological greenhouse gas emissions, the livestock sector has been the most consistently difficult to pin down. How does one actually measure emissions from a living, changing animal? Do you count the CO2 they exhale with every breath? What about all the rainforest that’s been chopped down to accommodate pasture land, do you count that, too? With the wide range of estimates for livestock’s contribution to GHGs and the ongoing argument as to which production systems are the most sustainable, it’s no wonder livestock often gets left out of the mitigation discussion altogether.
Jarvis challenged those present at April’s meeting to look at the livestock ‘hoofprint’ as an opportunity as much as a call to immediate action. “Developing countries are where it’s at! They have the biggest potential for mitigation and major system transformations. There are systems which are far more efficient than others, and developing nations have the ability to put the rest of the world to shame.” Intensive silvo-pastoral systems, for example, were highlighted as having catalyzed a mini-revolution in Colombia and Central America due to their high CO2 capture potential and low implementation costs. According to Jarvis they are the rare climate change win-win, converting degraded pasture land into profitable, productive systems with high carbon stock, biodiversity, and resilience.
It is likely that livestock will continue to be a contentious subject in the climate change discussion. Indeed, any vestige of consensus was slow to emerge at the IADG meeting; the numbers game remains fraught with quibbles and knowledge gaps, and developed nations are keen to defend the efficiency of their production systems. But the bottom line remains the same: livestock will have an increasingly larger share of global greenhouse emissions in the near future unless serious action is taken. That said, the right mix of targeted research, informed policy, and appropriate technology could make the sector into one of the success stories of global climate change mitigation.