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Debunked: Yes, cows are a 'problem' when it comes to cutting greenhouse gas emissions

Two Facebook posts said cows are “not the problem” compared to emitting activities like flying.

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A NUMBER OF recent posts on social media have claimed that cows are “not the problem” when it comes to carbon emissions, compared to activities such as flying or driving.

Posts have compared images of various activities and suggest that there should be less emphasis on emissions from cows because of the high emissions in other sectors.

The argument has increasingly been used by climate sceptics to claim that there is a wider agenda at play when it comes to tackling carbon emissions, as they attempt to sow doubt about the very existence of climate change linked to human activity.

But experts say that cows are a contributor to climate change, with one telling The Journal that downplaying their role by comparing agriculture to other sectors is “whataboutery” that forms part of a delay tactic on reducing emissions. 

Similar comments have been made before in Ireland, alongside claims about agriculture such as those which say Irish farmers are “most carbon-efficient food producers in the world”. This has previously been debunked

Let’s take a closer look at the specific claim around cows.

Facebook posts  

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One post from Yellow Vest Ireland has been shared on Facebook more than 4,000 times.

It shows a picture with cows alongside oil pumpjacks and car exhaust fumes.

It says: “Imagine the amount of propaganda it took to make people believe cows are the problem.”

bill gates

Another Facebook post, which is actually a screenshot of a Tweet, has been shared more than 470 times.

This says: “When Bill Gates takes his private jet from Seattle to New York and back, he burns enough fuel to supply our cattle operation for 6 months. 

“In that same timeframe, we produce enough beef for 800 Americans for the entire year. Hey elites, COWS ARE NOT THE PROBLEM!”

However, this argument is a common tactic when it comes to debates on climate policy and action: advocates for certain sectors regularly argue that their sector shouldn’t have to make changes when other areas are still responsible for high levels of emissions.

It is also similar to an argument frequently heralded in Ireland that the country’s climate action means little compared to huge emitters like China and the US. 

This has been addressed in a previous article.

Climate expert and Emeritus Professor of Geography at Maynooth University John Sweeney said that such “whataboutery” is “irrelevant in many respects”, given the urgent need and legal requirement to cut emissions. 

Agriculture is a major contributor to Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

The sector accounted for 37.5% of Ireland’s overall emissions in 2021 and over 93% of total methane emissions. Methane is the second most significant contributor to Ireland’s emissions behind carbon dioxide. 

Methane is emitted during the production and transport of fossil fuels and in agriculture through livestock like cattle.

Beef and dairy production is also among the highest emitters of all agricultural products. 

Methane is significant when it comes to cutting emissions because it stays for less time in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. 

And while it is a short-lived gas, it has a global warming potential that is up to 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, a UN commission has said.

Measured over the course of 20 years, that grows to more than 80 times more potent.

The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) outlined that rapid changes in emissions like methane can result in “rapid climate effects”.  

Professor John Sweeney said there is no justification to point to other sectors or countries, especially in Ireland where emissions are still rising, when “we are obliged under our international obligations to tackle our domestic emissions”. 

“We’re very quick to point the finger at other people and use that as an excuse for simply not doing what we have to do ourselves,” he told The Journal

The problem is that we simply don’t have the time to waste on that kind of thing.

“37% of our national emissions come from agricultural sources. A much smaller percentage comes from aviation.

“It is fair to say that yes, there are some very wasteful emissions occurring from celebrity jets, for example, and those are things that are not welcome.”

But he said this “doesn’t obviate us from getting our own house in order here”. 

Emissions from aviation account for about 2.8% of annual global CO2 output, according to the IEA.

But livestock accounts for about 14.5% of global emissions per year, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. 

Cattle – both beef and dairy – account for about 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions. This is the highest of any animal species. 

“We have to tackle this problem on all fronts, not simply on one front or one sector,” Professor Sweeney said. 

Agriculture emissions

Dr Clare Noone, postdoctoral researcher at Maynooth University, told The Journal earlier this year: “Because methane is a really powerful greenhouse gas, because it breaks down more quickly than carbon dioxide it can be cleared from the atmosphere quicker. 

“That means that reducing methane could be the quickest way to reduce or slow down climate change.”

Data from the EU in January showed that atmospheric methane concentration rose to an “unprecedented” level in 2021.

Myles Allen, a professor of geosystem science at Oxford University, told AFP in June: “Cows convert carbon dioxide into methane, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide for as long as it remains in the atmosphere.

Right now, global livestock numbers and associated methane emissions are going up, causing lots of global warming.

However, he said countries “don’t need to reduce methane emissions to zero to stop methane causing any further global warming”.

“It would be enough to start reducing them by around 3% per decade, or halving over 200 years,” Allen added.

Ireland and more than 100 other countries signed up to a pledge last year to reduce global methane emissions by 30% by the end of this decade.

So cutting agriculture emissions and methane, a significant portion of which comes from cattle, is a key requirement in the pathway to reducing overall emissions. 

This is important to bear in mind while also remembering that flying burns a lot of fuel and is responsible for a high amount of emissions compared to other modes of transport. 

While cutting emissions from cattle and other aspects of agriculture may be less of an issue in other countries, it is one of Ireland’s main challenges in meeting climate targets.

Agriculture across the world is also a significant contributor to global warming, intensified beef and dairy production in particular. 

It is therefore inaccurate to suggest that cows are “not the problem” when it comes to either contributing to the climate crisis or the need to cut emissions. All sectors have to take action to reduce their emissions, including agriculture. 

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