How Much Does Beef Production Contribute to Global Warming?

Beef production has a significant impact on climate change, accounting for a substantial portion of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide Cattle raised for beef are a major source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and the expansion of pasture and feed crop land to accommodate growing beef demand contributes to deforestation But quantifying beef’s exact contribution to global warming can be challenging due to complexities in global supply chains and differences in how emissions are calculated.

Share of Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions

In 2017, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that direct greenhouse gas emissions from beef production accounted for about 3 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) in 2010. This represents around 7% of total global emissions from human activities that year.

However. this estimate only includes emissions directly from beef production such as

  • Methane from enteric fermentation (cow burps)
  • Methane and nitrous oxide from manure
  • Nitrous oxide from fertilizers used to grow cattle feed crops

It does not account for land use change impacts and deforestation associated with expanding beef production, which can potentially double the climate impact according to some analyses.

When including land use change effects, the World Resources Institute estimates that beef accounts for nearly half of livestock’s greenhouse gas footprint, and livestock overall accounts for about 14.5% of total global emissions.

How Beef Production Emits Greenhouse Gases

The main ways beef cattle contribute to climate change include:

  • Methane from enteric fermentation: Cows and other ruminant animals produce methane as a by-product of digesting grasses and plants. This accounts for the majority of direct emissions from beef production.

  • Manure methane and nitrous oxide: Greenhouse gases are also emitted from the manure that cattle produce.

  • Nitrous oxide from fertilizers: Growing feed crops for cattle requires significant fertilizer use, which emits nitrous oxide.

  • Deforestation for pasture land: Rising demand for beef drives deforestation to expand pasture acreage, releasing carbon dioxide stored in forests and vegetation.

  • Feed production: Land used to produce feed crops like corn and soy could otherwise store carbon if allowed to regrow forests or grasslands. This lost carbon sequestration potential is not always accounted for.

  • Transportation: Transporting feed and livestock releases additional emissions.

Beef Compared to Other Food and Sectors

Beef production has an exceptionally high carbon footprint compared to other foods and sectors. Some comparisons:

  • Pound for pound, beef production requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more emissions than producing beans or other plant-based proteins.

  • Global estimates attribute around half of all livestock emissions to beef specifically.

  • Per calorie, beef emits 6 times more greenhouse gases than pork or poultry, and 36 times more than legumes.

  • Individual American diets with high beef consumption can generate nearly as much carbon as direct personal use of fossil fuels.

So while animal agriculture as a whole contributes significantly to climate change, beef makes up a disproportionate share of farm emissions.

Projected Growth in Beef Demand

Despite beef’s major climate impacts, global demand continues to rise. Beef consumption grew by 25% between 2000 and 2019. If current trends continue, beef demand could increase another 13% by 2029.

Meeting this growing appetite could lead to massive land use change and deforestation, which the World Resources Institute estimates could release enough emissions to jeopardize global climate goals. Even if beef production efficiency improves, pastureland is projected to expand by up to 400 million hectares by 2050.

Shifting diets, improving production practices, and avoiding deforestation will all be necessary to curb beef-related climate emissions.

Steps to Reduce Beef’s Climate Impact

Potential ways to mitigate beef’s contribution to global warming include:

  • Improved production practices – Better grazing management, cattle breeding, feed practices, and manure management can lower emissions intensity.

  • Diet shifts – Reducing ruminant meat consumption, especially in high-consuming regions like North America and Europe, can significantly reduce land use pressure. If beef intake declined to 1-2 servings per week in high-consuming countries, it could largely offset emissions from increased demand in the developing world.

  • Forest protection – Eliminating deforestation for new pasture land is essential to preserving carbon stocks.

  • Emerging technologies – Innovations like feed additives, inhibitors, and vaccines may further reduce enteric methane.

Beef production is a major contributor to climate change, responsible for around 7% of total global greenhouse gas emissions based on conservative estimates. The actual share is likely higher when accounting for the full impacts of associated land use change. As global beef demand increases, curbing related emissions will be critical to limiting global warming. This will require a combination of strategies from farm to plate.

How Meat Production Contributes to Climate Change


How much does beef contribute to climate change?

With 99.48 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram, beef production remains the biggest source of greenhouse gases. This is more than double the carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram linked to lamb and mutton production (39.72 kilograms).

How bad is beef production for the environment?

LEAD researchers also found that the global livestock industry uses dwindling supplies of freshwater, destroys forests and grasslands, and causes soil erosion, while pollution and the runoff of fertilizer and animal waste create dead zones in coastal areas and smother coral reefs.

What percentage of CO2 emissions come from the meat industry?

(2021) using these lower values, provides estimates that livestock account for 14.0% to 17.3% of global emissions, depending on whether CO2 emissions from grazing land are included.

What percentage of global warming is caused by food production?

The food sector is known as a major source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, contributing about 30% of the total global emissions, through livestock, fisheries, crop production, land-use changes and processing1. Writing in this issue of Nature Climate Change, Ivanovich et al.

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