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The Biggest Sources of Greenhouse Gas: Public Perception is Wrong

Dec 05, 2014 03:05 PM EST
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You think you know the major sources of the greenhouse gases that are driving climate change? According to a recent international survey, you've probably got the wrong idea.

The results and analysis of this survey were recently released by the Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, and details how the people of Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa all believe various aspects of the world economy and nature emit carbon (methane, carbon dioxide, etc).

The results most stunningly reveal how underestimated livestock carbon emissions are, earning the paper the title "Livestock - Climate Change's Forgotten Sector."

Citizens' Carbon Confusion

But first let's look at the basics. According to the paper, the survey was conducted online in Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Poland, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with a minimum of 1,000 participants in each country.

"It tested public views on a range of issues including, but not limited to: consumers' motivations for increasing or decreasing their meat and dairy consumption; understanding of the different sources of [green house gas] emissions...; consumers' willingness to alter their behavior as a means to reduce their environmental footprint; and attitudes towards a range of sources to which the public may turn for information on livestock and climate change," the paper's authors report.

Not surprisingly, when asked how big a part power production and industry play in harmful emissions, the public was pretty spot on. About 65 percent of the world public, for instance, believed that power plants contribute "a lot" to climate change. Likewise, about 55 percent said the same for industry. Amazingly, according to the latest reports from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), these factors contribute to about 68 and 52 percent of global emissions, respectively, with expected overlaps.

(Photo : Chatham House and Glasgow University Media Group via Ipsos MORI (commissioned))

However, this wasn't so much the case of things like deforestation, exhaust emissions, and the disposal and treatment of waste, which were grossly overestimated as a problem by the majority of the world. In fact, five of the seven carbon emission contributors polled about were overestimated as problems by world citizens.

The Beef Burden

That's where meat and dairy production come in. The survey revealed that this factor tends to fly under people's radar, despite the fact that it's arguably the fourth heaviest contributor of greenhouse gases and the most significant source of additional methane gas* - the most harmful of carbon emissions.

"Greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector are estimated to account for 14.5 percent of the global total - more than direct emissions from the transport sector," the researchers wrote. "Even with ambitious supply-side action to reduce the emissions intensity of livestock production, rising global demand for meat and dairy produce means emissions will continue to rise."

To make things worse, the paper's analysis reveals that while governments will willingly admit that cutting livestock consumption could easily help shave emissions, they are exceptionally hesitant to do so, and eager to tackle all other factors first.

Why? The complexity of the issue is a main reason, where any such action would not only hurt an industry that has been around as long as farms have existed, but would also make the government seem intrusive - telling their citizens what they can eat and how they should eat it. The cultural significance of meat consumption should also be considered, in that meat consumption is an aspiration and sign of high status in many developing countries.

Thinking it Through

Still, it's not all bad news. The survey does indicate that respondents in Brazil, India, and China demonstrate greater consideration of climate change in their food choices and an above-average willingness to modify their consumption. These three countries also happen to be half of the six largest livestock nations.

(Photo : Chatham House and Glasgow University Media Group via Ipsos MORI (commissioned))

It also should be noted that researchers are still very unclear on exactly how much carbon is released during deforestation - a major consequence of both agricultural and pasture expansion, especially in regions like the Amazon.

* in addition to ocean methane cycles

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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