15 Nov
  • By Oscar Glancy

Are cows causing global warming?

In short, the answer is yes. At the moment there are around 1.5 billion cows on the planet, and these form a huge part of the agricultural livestock sector. Livestock alone are responsible for 18% of yearly Co2 emissions; this is more than the whole transport sector’s emissions (this includes cars, planes and all other forms of transport). A large part of this 18% is from cows.

As well as causing huge amounts of Co2 to go into the atmosphere and accelerate global warming, cows are responsible for a huge list of other environmental effects:

  • Cows emit a third of all methane emissions. Methane is 23x worse than Co2 as a greenhouse gas, so this means that each methane molecule causes the same damage and radiates as much heat back into the world (accelerating global warming) as 23 carbon dioxide molecules.  
  • Livestock also produces more than 100 other polluting gases, including more than two-thirds of the world’s emissions of ammonia, one of the main causes of acid rain, which causes extensive damage to properties and cars each year, and can kill whole forests.
  • 90% of rainforest deforestation in the Amazon is for cattle ranching. This is responsible for the loss of huge amounts of biodiversity in the rainforest and causing species endangerment and extinction, as well as huge amounts of Co2 and other gases being released into the atmosphere by the cutting down of trees. The cattle in areas such as Brazil are usually sold as the cheapest meat in your supermarket, and are also used by cheap fast food outlets.
  • Overgrazing by cattle is turning a fifth of all pastures and ranges into desert. Cows also soak up vast amounts of water: it takes a staggering 990 litres of water to produce one litre of milk.
  • Wastes from feedlots and fertilisers used to grow their feed over nourish water, causing weeds to choke all other life. And the pesticides, antibiotics and hormones used to treat them get into drinking water and endanger human health. Waste from the beef industry can also damage river and lake ecosystems, killing huge amounts of life and preventing fish and other marine animals from repopulating the area for many years later.
  • The pollution washes down to the sea, killing coral reefs and creating “dead zones” devoid of life. One is up to 21,000sqkm, in the Gulf of Mexico, where much of the waste from US beef production is carried down the Mississippi.
  • Livestock now use 30 percent of the earth’s entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33 percent of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock

Cows standing in a row looking at camera

Many of these effects that cattle have on the environment cause further damage, such as the acid rain caused by ammonia released by cows can damage and destroy forests, and damages cars and property and the destruction of rainforests emits further amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and causes huge irreparable losses of biodiversity.

Let’s look deeper:

A Japanese study showed that producing a kilogram of beef leads to the emission of greenhouse gases with a global warming potential equivalent to 36.4 kilograms of Co2. It also releases fertilising compounds equivalent to 340 grams of sulphur dioxide and 59 grams of phosphate, and consumes 169 megajoules of energy.

In other words, a kilogram of beef is responsible for the equivalent of the amount of CO2 emitted by the average European car every 250 kilometres, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.

The following tables indicate the CO2 production in kg CO2 equivalents per kg of meat depending on the animal:

1 KG of meat from Produces KG of Co2
Beef 34.6
Lamb 17.4
Pork 6.35
Chicken 4.57

As you can see, beef is the worst meat for carbon emissions (as well as having all of the other effects mentioned above), and chicken is the best meat to eat in terms of smallest Co2 emissions. The emissions are calculated from feed production and processing, outputs of greenhouse gases during digestion by cows, and manure decomposition. The remainder is attributable to the processing and transportation of animal products. Chickens also need a lot less feed and water to produce the same amount of meat, and many more chickens can live on an area of land that could only sustain a small amount of cows, but the chickens in that area would be able to produce the same amount of meat.


How you can help:

Obviously, you can reduce your beef consumption. A meat-free diet can cut your carbon footprint in half, and switching from beef (the largest emitter per KG) to more environmentally-friendly alternatives such as lamb, pork and chicken is good at cutting your carbon footprint, and you can still continue to eat meat. These taste just as good, but hugely reduce your carbon emissions. Just having a meatless Monday, where you don’t eat any meat on a Monday, can also be very effective. If the whole world had a meatless Monday and didn’t eat any meat on that day, it would be the equivalent of taking 240 million cars off the road each year. Many people don’t think of eating less meat, specifically beef, to help reduce their carbon footprint, but this is probably the single most effective and easy method of reducing your carbon footprint (apart from turning completely vegan, which many people would struggle with).

By reducing your intake of beef you also reduce the amount of methane and sulphur dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. Beef also requires a huge amount of food to produce a small amount of beef, which is very unethical, whereas meats such as chicken need hugely less feed to produce the amount.

Reducing the amount of milk you consume can also be effective and reducing the same effects caused by cattle, although not as effective as reducing the amount of beef you eat.

You could go the further mile and become a vegetarian or vegan. This either hugely or completely cuts down on the amount of meat and animal-related products like milk that you consume, and this means that vegetarians and vegans have much lower carbon footprints than normal people. Following on from the meatless Monday, it is worth having a few days a week where you don’t eat meat to cut down on your footprint (this is a good rule to have in your household), and try to have as little beef as possible in general. This includes fastfood such as beefburgers from MacDonald’s, which have extremely high carbon footprints due to the transport to ship it around the world. This is because much of MacDonald’s beef is produced in South American countries like Brazil, in areas where vast swathes of rainforest have been cleared for pastures (causing huge amounts of carbon to be released into the atmosphere), then the beef is shipped all around the world to MacDonald’s and other fastfood outlets.


In conclusion, reducing your beef intake or stopping it completely by switching to other meats or fish has effects such as:

  • Hugely reducing your carbon emissions, this has lots of other positive effects on the environment.
  • Saving a lot of feed that can be used to produce more meat from animals like chickens while using the same amount of feed, or the feed in some cases can be directly eaten by humans.
  • Reducing the amount of ammonia in the atmosphere, which causes acid rain that destroys forests as well as damaging houses and cars. (2/3 of all ammonia is emitted by cows)
  • Reducing the amount of methane in the atmosphere, which is another greenhouse gas that causes 23x more damage in terms of accelerating global warming than carbon dioxide (in terms of comparing molecules)
  • Reducing the amount of rainforest deforestation (around 80% of deforestation in the Amazon is for cattle ranching), rainforests are vital for fighting climate change as well as having around half of all the worlds species, so it is vital that we preserve these amazing places instead of destroying them. By reducing the demand for beef, you reduce the amount of rainforest that is consequently being destroyed. ((To read more about rainforests and why they are so important and incredible, and for more info on how you can save them, check out my blog about rainforests-
  • Reducing the amount of water waste. It takes 990 litres of water to produce 1 litre of milk, and obviously this is a hugely unethical waste, when there are hundreds of millions of people without access to a clean reliable drinking source.
  • Helping reduce the oceanic ‘dead zones’ being created by runoff from cattle farms, which also kills and damages coral reefs and other marine ecosystems.

All these effects and many more that I haven’t mentioned are reduced and negated by consuming less beef (and other meats).

I hope that you learnt something from reading this blog, and educate your friends and family about how they as well can reduce their carbon footprint by reducing beef and milk consumption, and also that you try to reduce the amount of beef and milk that you personally eat and drink, or go even further and become a vegetarian or vegan. As discussed this will have huge impacts on your carbon footprint and your impact on the environment in general. The best time to act on your carbon footprint and help save environment was yesterday, but the next best time is NOW! Go out there and spread the word, and I would also be grateful if you could share this blog on things such as social media to make as many people see this as possible and get the word out there.

Sources/Further Reading