Understanding Greenhouse Gas Impacts of the European Livestock Sector

The European Commission has released the final report of the Joint Research Centre (JRC) study Evaluation of the Livestock Sector's Contribution to the EU Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GGELS). One of the main goals of the study was to provide an estimate of the net emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) associated with EU animal production, based on a life-cycle assessment. While the 2006 FAO report Livestock's Long Shadow estimated that livestock emissions account for about 18 per cent of global GHG emissions, the JRC report gives an estimate of only 9.1 per cent of total EU emissions, or 12.8 per cent if land use and land use change emissions are included. A more precise estimate would depend on better data for land use and land use change, and for emission factors and farm production methods.

In absolute values, the total GHG fluxes of the EU livestock sector, including land use and land use change, is estimated as 661 mio tons of CO2-equivalent. This total covers the full net carbon emissions of a range of livestock production systems, including all the on-farm emissions related to livestock husbandry, emissions associated with animal feed (including imported feed), emissions generated by mineral fertilizers, pesticides, energy and the land used for feed production. Of this total, 323 mio tons (49 per cent) is from the agricultural sector, 136 mio tons (21 per cent) from the energy sector, 11 mio tons (2 per cent) from the industrial sector and 191 mio tons (29 per cent) from land use and land use change mainly in countries outside the EU. The proportion of emissions from land use and land use change can vary between 153 mio tons and 382 mio tons depending on the assumptions made. Looking at the footprint of different meat products, the study shows that the highest average net emissions are associated with ruminant meat (22.2 CO2-equivalent/kg for beef and 20.3 CO2-equivalent/kg for sheep and goat meat). Because of the absence of enteric fermentation in pork and poultry, as well as their more efficient digestion processes, the emissions associated with pork and poultry meat are significantly lower (7.5 and 4.9 CO2-equivalent/kg respectively).

Another major goal of the study was to estimate the technically available mitigation potential in the EU livestock sector. It found that this potential could reduce GHG emissions by about 55 -70 mio tons CO2-equivalent/year, or 15-19 per cent of the current total of the emissions of the sector. But there are large uncertainties to be taken into account, some of them linked to differences in soils as a result of different climatic, bio-physical and agronomic conditions, others related to a lack of published research on the subject. The measures assessed and included in the above figures are: improvements in animal housing; improvements in outdoor manure storage; low ammonia application of manure; urea substitution by ammonium nitrate for mineral fertilizer application; no grazing of animals; and bio-gasification of manure from animal herds of more than 100 livestock units.

Of interest is the proportion of the total emissions that are N2O and CH4 emissions, which together comprise the IPCC category ‘agriculture’ and are frequently confused in public debates on climate policy and agriculture with the EU agriculture emissions as a whole. The study estimates that these account for only 57 per cent of the total GHG livestock emissions associated with the EU livestock production, including land use and land use change emissions.

Last but not least, the impacts of the livestock production on biodiversity have also been analysed. Pollution and habitat fragmentation caused by livestock systems are cited as major factors linked with biodiversity loss, and of these an excess of reactive nitrogen is the factor that deserves most attention, according to the study. At the same time the study stresses the importance of low-input grazing systems for maintaining biodiversity and landscapes and supporting rural communities across Europe.

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