Global emissions from livestock production account for 7.5 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year, representing 18 percent of manmade greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The main sources and types of greenhouse gases from livestock systems are CO2 from land use and its changes (feed production, deforestation), which accounts for 32 percent of emissions from livestock; nitrous oxide (N2O) from manure and slurry management, which accounts for 31 percent; and methane (CH4) production from ruminants, which accounts for 25 percent of emissions and is a GHG that is 21 times more potent than CO2.
Strategies for Reducing Emissions from Livestock Production
There are several mature and proven methods for reducing emissions from livestock production, including adoption of improved pastures, diet intensification options, land use options, and changing breeds. One-hundred percent adoption of these strategies yields a reduction in emissions of 20.8 megatons (Mt) of CO2e per year, and the potential for an optimistic but plausible adoption scenario, of 23 to 30 percent adoption, is 10.7 Mt CO2e per year. The total mitigation potential of all options at a plausible implementation rate (23–30 percent) would result in a 214 Mt CO2e reduction of emissions by 2030, and a maximum implementation rate (100 percent) would result in
a 417 Mt CO2e reduction of emissions by 2030. For countries with growing livestock production industries that rely heavily on the clearing of forests for increasing grazing land, a moderate intensification of livestock production (raising more cattle on the same amount of land) has enormous potential to prevent an increase of several billion metric tons of CO2e without falling short of production targets. Implementing a moderate intensification system, which includes improving pastures and changing breeds, has the potential to accomplish this goal and also increase revenues for livestock farmers and generate wealth for those that invest in these solutions.
Deforestation in Brazil Presents the Greatest Threat and Opportunity
Over the next decade and beyond, Brazil will rely heavily on the clearing of tropical forests for the expansion of livestock rangeland. Brazil’s total carbon emissions are estimated at 5 Gt CO2e annually, with 70 percent coming from
deforestation and agriculture – an estimated 55 percent (or 1.4 Gt) from deforestation alone.4 Annual deforestation in Brazil is estimated at over 3 million hectares (ha). Cattle ranching represents 80% of deforestation in the Amazon.
Brazil, as the largest exporter of beef and leather, has an estimated $5 billion annual market that has shown enormous growth over the last decade with exports increasing by a factor of four.5 Brazil has set a national goal to double exports by 2018, increasing the number of cows raised in Brazil to 100 million.
This dramatic increase in cattle production stands to increase deforestation and drive up the associated environmental degradation. The primary cause of this is the current cattle management practice in Brazil, which suggests one cow per ha. Therefore, in an effort to obtain more useable land through deforestation, the impact of doubling cattle exports would be to double the CO2e emissions from Brazil by 2018.6 The deforestation component of cattle ranching in the Amazon produces 10 times more CO2e per kg of meat than the industrial intensive, concentrated animal feeding operations used in the United States.
However, there are options to deter this increase in deforestation and green house gas emissions. For instance, agricultural residues and silage can be included in cattle diets, and grazing densities can be increased to up to six
animals per ha. The land area of cattle ranching is so vast in the Brazilian Amazon that with just a moderate level of intensification, whereby cattle densities increase to just over two cows per ha, an area the size of California could be saved from future deforestation. This could provide a total annual mitigation potential of 0.9 Gt CO2e/year, or a total mitigation potential of 6.5 Gt CO2e by 2018. To accomplish this, an estimated $21.5 billion dollars of capital is required. The period of return on investment is approximately four and a half years, due to increased meat production.
Barriers to Implementation
Major barriers to implementation of moderate intensification in Brazil include lack of capital and legal enforcement. On the other hand, market pressure for zero-deforestation beef is one of the strongest forces that will ensure future
deforestation does not continue. Some legal enforcement and market pressure elements are already in place in Brazil such as trade agreements and the public demand for sustainability from major purchasers of leather as well as satellite monitoring of the Amazon, but these measures alone have not put a stop to deforestation from livestock production. Legal enforcement and market pressure for zero deforestation will be critical components of the successful implementation of this livestock intensification model and they should be shown to be effective before implementing a moderate intensification plan.