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.
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 10.3% of national GHG emissions – well behind sectors like energy and transport. The largest emitters are electricity generation (32.8%), stationary energy (22.2%) and transport (20.9%).
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:
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.