The Other Greenhouse “Gas”: Cows & Climate Change

Jillian N. Bittner

You drive to the supermarket in your “green” car, checking your back seat before you leave for your re-usable bags– yet you stand on line about to purchase the packaged beef sitting at the bottom of your cart and do not stop to think twice about the environment? – Perhaps you should.

While the environmental legal community emphasizes the desperate need to harness and reduce CO2 emissions as a way to mitigate the current and impending consequences of greenhouse gases on climate change, the community at large has ignored the impact of a greater culprit – CH4, or rather methane gas.  Animal agriculture accounts not only as a source of CO2, or nitrous oxide (N2O; another potent greenhouse gas), but is the number one source of methane gas worldwide – beating out the effects of vehicles and airplanes combined. But why should the environmental and legal communities be more concerned with CH4? According to the EPA, “methane is about 21 times more powerful at warming the atmosphere than CO2 by weight.”

Cows, and the corresponding beef industry, are the largest contributors of methane gas. Cows produce this effect partly through belching and flatulence as a consequence of their digestive systems, which are characteristic of ruminant animals. Yet CAFOs remain unregulated.

Those who embrace or transition to veganism, or even vegetarianism assist in the reduction of the effect the beef and dairy industries are having on our environment. However, with the majority unlikely to sacrifice beef as a dietary option anytime soon, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma suggests that at a minimum our carbon footprint can be mitigated by feeding cows grass based diets – since, not only is their “gas” contributing to climate change, but also the grain used as feed and fossil-fuel based fertilizers, and transportation, which neatly gets them to your supermarket shelves are contributing.

As of January 17, 2011, the US government has still yet to impose regulations for the amount of allowable air pollutants from CAFOs, specifically dairy farms. However, at the same time the EPA took a step in the right direction by announcing that it would use raw data concerning CAFO’s gas emissions to create regulations on allowable levels of air pollutant emissions by such, and in accordance with the Clean Air Act.

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1953692,00.html

http://www.epa.gov/methane/sources.html

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1646484

http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/global-warming.aspx

http://milk.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=001154

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1646484

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