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GHG emissions – the facts

Claims about cattle and climate change often make headlines, from their methane burps to the impact of farming on global temperatures. Let’s take a look at the facts.

It’s true that cattle, sheep and other ruminants emit methane, a strong greenhouse gas (GHG), but methane is very different to carbon dioxide (CO2), which is the most abundant GHG in the atmosphere. Methane emissions from livestock break down in the atmosphere within 12 years, whereas CO2 from burning fossil fuels continues to build up over centuries.

The animation below shows how the environmental impact of methane emissions from cattle is fundamentally different to the CO2 from fossil fuels.

Does red meat contribute to global warming?

According to researchers from the University of California, the production of beef and sheep meat in Australia at current levels will not contribute to global temperature rise.

That’s because cattle and sheep methane is recycled within 12 years, while CO2 emissions from energy and transport sectors burning fossil fuels can remain for thousands of years. With stable livestock numbers, the amount of methane produced actually balances the methane that breaks down from the atmosphere.

Overall, the Australian red meat industry contributes only 10% of national GHG emissions – well behind sectors like energy and transport. The largest emitters are electricity generation (33%), stationary energy (20%) and transport (18%).

What’s the industry doing about reducing GHG emissions?

In Australia, GHG from agriculture are falling. In fact, the Australian beef industry has more than halved GHG emissions since 2005. With investment in innovative emissions reduction practices and technologies, the red meat and livestock industry will be carbon neutral by 2030 (CN30) and play a key role in the climate solution.

On-farm, Australian red meat producers are reducing emissions through:

  • Improvements in feeding practices (better pastures, new types of food, more grains)
  • Improved ways of handling manure
  • Improved genetics and animal management
  • sequestering (storing) carbon in the land
  • Using high-quality feed to improve productivity and reduce emissions.

Feedlots are also investigating the potential of re-using methane as a renewable energy source, and recycling manure to reduce emissions and create a renewable fertiliser.

Did you know? 

  • You’re emitting almost twice as much carbon by driving a car than you are eating beef 3–4 times per week (source).
  • Grazing of pastures by livestock helps remove GHG from the air by stimulating more plant growth, which accelerates the absorption of CO2 from the air, turning it into carbon in plants and soil (source).
  • Feed additives such as red seaweed can significantly reduce methane emissions from cattle. In a recent study, cattle that ate red Asparagopsis produced up to 98% less methane (source).