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Is Consumption of beef contributing to climate change?

by Ken Root

Many environmentally sensitive people are condemning the consumption of beef or any meat because of its impact on Global Climate Change.  Is that true?  Do the facts reflect the same conclusion as drawn by Bill Mahr who says: “But when it comes to bad for the environment, nothing—literally—compares with eating meat. . . . If you care about the planet, it’s actually better to eat a salad in a Hummer than a cheeseburger in a Prius.”

In conversational detail…the numbers from an Agricultural Economist in a moment.

Dr. Jayson Lusk currently serves as Regents Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University and also serves as the Samuel Roberts Noble Distinguished Fellow.

He puts forward opinion pieces using calculations from the EPA and matching them with real world carbon impacts.  You’ll have to follow for a moment to get to the conclusions.

He addresses whether we should become vegetarians and stop consuming meat which is generating greenhouse gasses that are destroying our planet.

Dr. Lusk went to the EPA’s calculations, to surmise carbon equivalent impacts for the US attributable to beef cattle, swine, and poultry production during the year 2014 (MMT is million metric tons):

Beef Cattle expelled 116 million metric tons of CO2 from digestion…They are ruminants and the breakdown of cellusose becomes Co2, methane and other gasses.  There was another 4 million metric tons of CO2 generated from waste management so 120 million metric tons of CO2 generated by cattle in the U.S. in 2014.

beef cattle: 116.7 MMT C02 (from digestion) + 4 MMT C02 (from waste management) = 119.7 MMT C02;

swine: 1 MMT C02 (from digestion) + 22.4 MMT C02 (from waste management) = 23.4 MMT C02; and

poultry: 0 MMT C02 (from digestion) + 3.2 MMT C02 (from waste management) = 3.2 MMT C02.

What is the cost?

Dr. Lusk used EPA numbers suggesting a social cost of carbon of $36/metric ton of C02.  They use this $36 per ton for cost benefit analysis and rule making. Multiplying the C02 impact of 120 mmt for beef cattle by the price tag of $36 implies the following total carbon costs in 2014.

beef cattle: $4.3 billion;

swine: $842 million; and

poultry: $115 million.

“That seems like a lot, but keep in mind that we also eat a lot of meat. Data from the USDA suggests that in 2014, farmers/ranchers in the US produced 24.32 billion pounds of beef, 22.86 billion lbs of pork, and 44.98 billion lbs of poultry. Putting the carbon costs on a per-pound basis (i.e., dividing total carbon cost by pounds produced), suggests the following.

beef: $0.177/lb;  18 cents per pound

pork: $0.037/lb; and     4 cents per pound

poultry: $0.002/lb.  less than 1 cent per pound.

“I don’t know about you, but those don’t seem like enormous costs. Let’s think about it a different way. Suppose you wanted to “internalize” the the impacts you’re having on climate change by altering how much beef, pork, and poultry you buy. To do this, take the price you see at the grocery store and add about $0.18/lb to the price of beef, $0.04/lb to the price of pork, and less than a penny to the price of poultry, and act as if these were the prices actually being charged. Would you change your behavior much based on such price increase? If not, we’d could say the climate impacts are relatively small.

“The key isn’t to have zero greenhouse gas impacts, but rather to to make sure you’re taking into account the cost of those impacts. For the case of beef, that means acting as if the price were about $0.17/lb higher. Do that and you can shop away, guilt free (well, at least the guilt of carbon impacts).”