Climate Change

Susan Canty – Animal Science

Jesse Kattany – Environmental Science

Josh Rebello – Building Construction Technology



     Right now beef production is responsible for 2.2% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the U. S. causing climate change (Gurian-Sherman, 2011). This may seem like an insignificant amount but it equates to the yearly emissions of 24 million cars (Gurian-Sherman, 2011). One single cow produces anywhere from 66 to 132 gallons of methane per day, while a car usually holds about 16 gallons of gas (Ross, 2013). We usually think of climate change as connected with urban technology such as transportation and energy use. The vast majority of people are unaware that our food choices have such a large environmental impact and it is only increasing because of us and our consumption demands.

     Cows cause direct pollution to our atmosphere through their emissions of methane. Methane is the second most critical greenhouse gas and is twenty-one times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (Steinfeld, 2006, p.82). Cows produce large amounts of methane gas through fermentation, because they are ruminants. A ruminant is an animal that has four stomach compartments and uses fermentation to digest food. Methane is a byproduct of this fermentation and it is released mainly when the animal belches or through its manure. While all ruminants create methane, cows produce the most because of their size and numbers (Blitz, 2014). We have approximately 90 million cows in the United States and every single one of them produces methane (Cook, 2015). Cows also cause indirect pollution through feed production and transportation. The manufacture of the nitrogen fertilizers that we use to increase the abundance of feed plays a role in carbon dioxide emissions. Transportation of feed, cattle, and meat are a large part of carbon dioxide emissions as well because we have to transport these products across the country and the world (Steinfield, 2006). In order to decelerate emissions associated with beef production into the atmosphere, we must reduce global beef consumption by enacting an excise tax on beef products.


     Cows are ruminants, therefore they naturally release methane (CH4) as part as their digestion and when their feces react with oxygen during decomposition (Greenhouse gas emissions,  2016). According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) it is a pollutant responsible for 11% of the total greenhouse gas emissions produced in the United States, second to carbon dioxide (CO2), which is responsible for 81% of total emissions (Environmental, 2014). A difference of 70% between the two appears to be discrediting to the severity of methane, however atmospheric impacts over a 100-year period indicate that methane is 25 times more efficient at trapping radiation in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (Environmental Protection Agency, 2014). This statistic is further established by the Livestock, Environment and Development initiative (LEAD) claiming that the methane is a pollutant 23 times more efficient than carbon dioxide (Steinfeld, 2006), making methane a clear frontrunner in terms of threats to the atmosphere and global warming in general. The amount of methane that a single cow releases in a year makes it evident how cattle have such an impact on climate change.

     Steinfeld (2006) also asserts methane is the second most potent greenhouse gas, right behind carbon dioxide, and it stays in the atmosphere for 9-15 years (p. 82). It may not seem that 9-15 years could be long enough for methane to have a drastic affect on the planet. But in just the past 15 years the planet has seen the 10 warmest years ever recorded since record keeping began 136 years ago (Global, 2016). It has been agreed by scientists that the global annual temperature cannot exceed 2oC from the annual average recorded at the start of the industrial revolution or catastrophic changes will happen to our planet (Sutter, 2015). Currently the global temperature is 0.87oC (NASA, 2016) and with the pollution we have already emitted another 1.5 oC increase is likely to occur (Sutter 2015). This will put the global temperature above the 2oC tipping point and then changes will occur that cannot be undone. Such as, extremely hot summers and cold winters, shifting storm patterns that are more difficult to predict and rising sea levels (Stecker 2013). The number of cows in the US alone releases billions of pounds of methane in just one year.

     A single cow in a year releases 117 pounds of methane (Dong, Mangino & McAllister, 2006). This number may seem insignificant, but considering the US has a total of 90 million cows (including beef, dairy and birthing) that’s equivalent to 10.5 billion pounds of methane released from all the cows in the US in a single year (beef, 2016). This methane goes straight into the atmosphere, settles and acts as a blanket. It will let the solar radiation from the sun into the earth’s atmosphere, but when the same solar radiation tries to escape it cannot (Lallanila, 2016). Effectively trapping it and increasing climate change because the only thing the heat can do is stay and warm our planet (Lallanila, 2016). While methane is a direct negative impact from cattle on climate change it also has indirect consequences, CO2 emissions.

     One way carbon dioxide is released is from growing feed for the cattle. Growing such a large amount of feed for cattle cannot be done with natural practices and that is where nitrogen fertilizers come into play. Nitrogen fertilizers are man made fertilizers that vastly increase the productivity of the soil allowing large amounts of plant growth. In the US Steinfeld (2006) says over half of the grassland, 51%, has been treated with nitrogen fertilizer (p. 87, table 3.3). This increases CO2 emissions because fossil fuels need to be burned in order to produce the large amount of fertilizers used on all of that land. In the US 4,697 tonnes of nitrogen fertilizer are used per year and this results in 11,711 tonnes of CO2 emitted (Steinfeld, table 3.4, 2006). Additionally, CO2 is released from slaughtering and then the cutting, packaging and transportation of the beef.  

     Transportation is another sector associated with cattle that releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. Transportation emits 26% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the US (Environmental, 2016) because the majority of the trucks used run on diesel (petroleum). Diesel is a fossil fuel that emits carbon dioxide when burned and is emitted directly into the air (More). Trucks transporting cattle to slaughterhouse, to be bred or to the grocery store emit carbon dioxide the entire way. There’s also the carbon dioxide released from personal vehicles, which are the cars that people are driving to the supermarket to purchase the beef. On average about 19 pounds of carbon dioxide are released per gallon of gas (Frequently, 2016). Once this is coupled with how far the average person drives to get to their grocery store and the amount of cars results in a large amount of indirect carbon dioxide emitted by beef.  


     What is the true cost of beef? The evolution of the cattle raising industry allows us to produce beef on the increasingly largest scale ever with the cheapest cost to the farmers. However, the attractively costs that we see today are only able to be achieved by allowing major companies to mass produce beef using whichever practices they please, regardless of the environmental consequences. In 2050, analysts predict that the world population will increase from its current population of 7.3 billion to 9.7 billion (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2015). The amount of cattle that will be required to feed this population is expected to rise to reflect the growing amount of consumers for the product, we have already seen beef consumption double in size since the 1960’s with America leading the charge as the world’s largest provider of beef (Thornton, 2010). Growing problems can not be met with complacency when they are growing at the rate that we have seen the beef industry do. If methane emissions coming from the agricultural industry are not severely ameliorated, we face a future of extreme climate change and resource deprivation that we will not be able to come back from.

     According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) methane is a pollutant responsible for 11% of the the total greenhouse gas emissions produced in the United States, second to carbon dioxide which is responsible for 81% of total emissions (Environmental Protection Agency, 2014). A difference of 70% between the two appears to be discrediting to the severity of methane, however atmospheric impacts over a 100-year period indicate that methane is 25 times more efficient at trapping radiation in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (Environmental Protection Agency, 2014). This statistic is further legitimized by the Livestock, Environment and Development initiative (LEAD) claiming that the methane is a pollutant 23 times more efficient than carbon dioxide (Find date), making methane a clear frontrunner in terms of threats to the atmosphere and global warming in general. Considering that beef is that

     As a response to the negative impact that we have seen from raising cattle, an excise should be established on beef products by the pound representing the harmful environmental impacts of the product that will be paid by the consumer of the product. We have seen this happen in the past with products such as cigarettes, and as we have seen it has made a large impact on the culture of smoking. On a cattle farm, a cow raised for beef will live for roughly two years, of this two-year lifespan it will produce approximately 117 pounds of methane per year (Dong, Mangino & McAllister, 2006). Per cow we equate that each cow used for beef will produce roughly 234 pounds of methane in their lifespan. When slaughtered, a beef cow will weigh a target weight of 1200 pounds. According to calculations aided by the Environmental Protection Agency, one pound of beef can equate to producing approximately 50 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent gases (Sutter, 2015). This transfers to about 55 miles driven in a car. Given that gas fluctuates around $3 per gallon, a car getting 20 miles to the gallon would travel 55 miles for $8.25. Now that we arrive at a monetary value of $8.25 of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions for the production of one pound of beef, we propose that an additional $8.25 value tax be placed on the price of beef per pound in order to charge for the future costs of pollutants that are produced by a cow using market based prices. Federal government would receive the funds raised by this tax and use them for environmental remediation purposes. Change through punishment via monetary expenses has worked to decrease the sale of products such as cigarettes, it is believed that the same supply and demand response would be seen when costs of beef are raised to reflect a more honest representation of their impact to society.


     Consumers are the ones that will be affected the most by an excise tax on beef products. The IRS (2016) says that an excise tax is a tax paid when purchases are made on a specific good and are often included in the price of a product. This means that the tax would be put on the merchant and they would pass it on to the consumer by raising the price to encompass the tax. As this excise tax is meant to incorporate the ‘true cost’ of beef, it is going to be rather expensive for consumers. Excise taxes have been placed on other products such as cigarettes or alcohol in the past. The money received from these taxes have been used to help offset the environmental and health costs that has accrued over the years from making these products (Tax Meat). The money acquired from an excise tax could go to efforts on stopping climate change and raising people’s awareness of beef production’s effect on the climate. Meats can increase your risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity (Krantz, 2016). Hopefully these benefits of reducing meat consumption will help people to comply with this tax.  If people cut back on the amount of meat that they ate, they could be healthier as well as helping the climate to become more robust.

     Farmers will be affected significantly by an excise tax. Beef production would decline as less people bought meat because of the decidedly higher price. This is what we would assume based off our experience with other excise taxed products such as tobacco (Bader, Boisclair, & Ferrence, 2011). The farmers involved in beef production will have to find new ways of making money so that they can make up for what will be lost as demand recedes. There will be a larger need for horticulture to make up for the loss in our diet (Ewans, 2016). Replacing some of the land that had previously been used for raising cows with crops would help the environment. The good news for farmers is that even though meat prices have been rising over the past couple of years, the demand for meat is still going strong (Jordan, 2014). This leads us to believe that while the trend for meat will hopefully decline with the tax, there will still be a substantial amount of people continuing to pay for their beef products.


     There are multiple benefits to Americans reducing beef consumption and the overreaching reason behind this is climate change. We can make an impact on our climate if we can actually reduce methane emissions from cows and scaling down carbon dioxide emissions from fertilizer and transportation.  Reducing beef consumption will help to decrease methane emissions into the atmosphere significantly. The EPA’s report on Greenhouse Gas Emissions (2016) says that animal fermentation-caused methane is responsible for 22% of all methane emissions. Reducing the use of nitrogen fertilizer will help to make the climate healthier as well as our plants. Transportation is much more difficult to reduce as beef production plays a large part in our export economy, but hopefully the price inflation will help to diminish the demand overseas (Steinfield, 2006).  The benefits from the excise tax should outweigh the drawbacks of having to reduce beef consumption as much as we can. Helping to stop or at least hinder climate change is something that we all should and need to get behind.


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