12/06/2012 01:08 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2013

The Global Climate Crisis & Animal Agriculture: Doha and Beyond

Delegates from the world's governments, and a range of scientists, advisers, and advocates have gathered in Doha, Qatar for the 18th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP18) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As the conference enters its final days, they'll be working to hammer out a deal that paves the way for a new global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

Most of negotiators at COP18 are looking at fossil fuels and energy inefficiency as the main culprits in the Earth's warming and the cause of more frequent droughts, floods, and intensifying and unpredictable weather events (like Superstorm Sandy). Unfortunately, there's been almost no attention to the negative effects of the industrial food system -- and particularly intensive animal agriculture -- on the global climate.

Talks on reaching a deal to address agriculture within the COP process broke down in Doha, with developing and industrialized countries splintered over mitigation (reducing GHGs) and adaptation (dealing with the very real negative effects of climate change on farming and food production). That's a real shame, since the costs of continuing business as usual are staggeringly high.

The animal agriculture sector, which raised more than 70 billion land animals in 2010, is one of the largest contributors to GHG emissions worldwide, responsible for at least an estimated 18 percent of human-induced emissions. These emissions are projected to grow 39 percent by 2050.

Industrial systems of animal agriculture like factory farms and feedlots, pioneered in the U.S., are now spreading around the world. Approximately two-thirds of the world's poultry meat and eggs, and more than half of all pork, are now produced in industrial systems, and consumption of animal-based foods is rising, particularly in developing countries.

Brighter Green, a public policy action tank, along with Humane Society International (HSI) and the World Society for Protection of Animals (WSPA), which work globally to advance animal welfare, were in Doha to shed light on these realities, and to argue that establishing a food-secure, sustainable, and welfare-friendly future requires immediate changes in farm animal production as well as consumption patterns.

Climate change poses significant threats to ecosystems and biodiversity as well as human health, especially in low-income nations. Practically every stage of meat, egg, and dairy production exacerbates these problems, and holistic solutions are essential. Our policy recommendations include:

  • A COP decision on agriculture that would lead to a broad-based work plan focused on policies and finance that improve food security and long-term sustainability, enhance the ability of farmers and farming systems to adapt to climate change, mitigate emissions, and improve animal welfare. In addition, any successor agreement(s) to the Kyoto Protocol (which expires at the end of 2012) must include agriculture and address the drivers of agricultural emissions.
  • Governments at all levels (national, regional, and local) should include humane solutions for farm animal production when designing climate change mitigation and adaptation plans. Although climate change is a global problem requiring global solutions, national and sub-national solutions are also needed. Such solutions should address agriculture in an equitable manner that promotes resilient landscapes, food security, animal welfare, and the ability to adapt to climate change.
  • Governments and civil society should seek to raise awareness and adopt policies on the health, climate, and environmental benefits of reducing meat, egg, and milk consumption, particularly in developed nations and amongst higher income urban consumers in mid-income nations. A shift toward plant-based diets will reduce GHG emissions. Leading public health and nutrition experts have confirmed that such a shift can be achieved without compromising nutrition and that a reduction in the consumption of animal products will likely lead to health benefits, as well as other environmental benefits.

The UNFCCC will revisit the issue of agriculture again in Bonn, Germany, in June 2013, and COP19 will convene in Poland next November. But climate change, and animal agriculture's role in exacerbating it, won't wait for another unresolved meeting. We need substantive discussion and action at all levels of government and within civil society to kick-start the recommendations enumerated above. Addressing climate change, enhancing food security, improving the welfare of animals, and ensuring equity and sustainability, require nothing less.

Mia MacDonald is executive director, Brighter Green, which works to raise awareness of and encourage policy action on issues that span the environment, animals, and sustainability.