Which Are Worse for the Planet: Cows or Bike Lanes?

©. Matt Stucky via Twitter

Does agriculture really pump out more greenhouse gas than transportation?

There is a battle in San Diego to stop a bike lane and save parking spaces; I covered it on sister site MNN.com under the title Progressive baby boomers are fighting housing and transportation progress and showed a photo of a woman with a sign saying, "Factory Famering [sic] creates more GHG than all the transportation in the world. GO VEGAN."

I then wrote on MNN, my emphasis:

First of all, it's not true by a long shot; transportation creates a lot more CO2 than farming. Secondly, it's bizarre that anyone who claims to care about greenhouse gas emissions to the point of going vegan would also defend free car storage.

However, when I tweeted about the post I got some pushback from a regular reader, who said that the vegan lady was right, that agriculture is worse than transportation.

She linked to Nobel prize winner Stephen Chu, who is quoted in Forbes:

TreeHugger's Katherine has previously also noted that Cutting out meat and dairy is the best thing you can do for the planet, writing that "going vegan offers far greater benefits than quitting flying or driving an electric car."

methane emissions

Our world in data/Public Domain

I will admit that I was a bit surprised, looking at the numbers. Agriculture emits far less CO2 than transportation, but a lot more methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas. Jordyn Cormier wrote in Care2:

Livestock emissions make up anywhere between 14.5 and 18 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Comparably, the transportation sector is responsible for around 14 percent of emissions. By those numbers alone, our current system of meat production is extremely damaging...Yes, driving cars is no good, but meat production is unexpectedly worse for the environment. Besides all of the fertilizer and cow waste products that release methane, meat unfortunately has to be transported in refrigerated trucks from feedlots to slaughterhouses to processing centers to your local grocery store. In this way, factory farming combines all of the harmful effects of driving an 18 wheeler, plus some.

comparisons between transport and agriculture

FAO/Public Domain

More recently, however, Anne Mottet and Henning Steinfeld of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations had a look at this, and came to a different conclusion, suggesting that the analysis was oversimplified. They point out that the agriculture numbers are based on a full life-cycle analysis, but the transportation numbers are not.

Using a global life cycle approach, FAO estimated all direct and indirect emissions from livestock (cattle, buffaloes, goat, sheep, pigs and poultry) at 7.1 gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year, or 14.5% of all anthropogenic emissions reported by the IPCC. In addition to rumen digestion and manure, life cycle emissions also include those from producing feed and forages, which the IPCC reports under crops and forestry, and those from processing and transporting meat, milk and eggs, which the IPCC reports under industry and transport. Hence, we cannot compare the transport sector’s 14% as calculated by the IPCC, to the 14.5% of livestock using the life cycle approach.

That's because the transport sector only looks at fuel consumption, not the manufacture and disposal of the vehicles, or the infrastructure supporting them. "For example in the US, greenhouse gas emissions for the life cycle of passenger transport would be about 1.5 times higher than the operational ones." And that doesn't include building the highways and bridges or the hospitals for the millions injured by cars every year.

Back at Care2, Jordyn Cormier makes the case that eating less meat is actually an easier or better alternative than fixing transportation.

Eating less meat is much more easily accomplished than converting our entire country's infrastructure to run off of renewable energy—although we still need to be moving in that direction. We can start eating less meat immediately. Consuming less meat is also one of the few tactics for reducing greenhouse emissions that actually costs the consumer less money. Private solar panels cost money. New, fuel efficient vehicles cost money. Eating less meat means you're potentially saving a little bit of money. It's something that we can all do.

Like so many people discussing this issue, Cormier suffers from bike blindness, ignoring their potential role. Bikes and e-bikes have a minuscule fraction of the upfront or operating emissions of a car. It saves a lot of money. Almost all of us can do it. Frankly, I find it easier than giving up meat.

The vegan lady also is breathing the emissions from those cars, the particulates and the NO2. They are local. They are harmful. In the end, I remain convinced that transportation produces more GHGs than agriculture when you take everything into account. Furthermore, as we keep saying, bikes are transportation. When you replace cars with bikes, you are still moving people, but with far lower emissions. Every single trip that is taken by bike instead of by car is a win for the climate. So her sign is still wrong, on so many levels.

Get rid of the parking, put in that bike lane. The real lesson here is that we do have to change what we eat, but also how we get around. We have to do it all.