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Governments discussed the role of livestock production in connection to the climate crisis last week as part of the UNFCCC Climate Dialogues in lieu of the 26th Conference of Parties (COP) — the major climate conference where governments negotiate. The pandemic has punted COP 26 to November 2021. In the meantime, governments and civil society organizations are meeting online. IATP had the opportunity to present the environmental NGO constituency (ENGO-Climate Action Network (CAN)) viewpoint about livestock and its link to climate change. These discussions are part of a series of meetings of the UNFCCC agriculture workstream called the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA) that will ultimately result in a decision at COP 26 on whether and how governments integrate agriculture and livestock as part of their climate commitments.    

We explained that “The biggest challenge in improving livestock management systems is the dominance of industrial animal agriculture in crowding out more sustainable systems and practices. The mass production and overconsumption of food animals in specific regions and populations have led to dramatic increases in food animals and greenhouse gas emissions. The industrial model with long supply chains has not only contributed to increased emissions due to land use change and non-Co2 emissions, but also to biodiversity loss, nitrate pollution, dead zones, the increase of zoonotic diseases and public health impacts such as antimicrobial resistance and cardiovascular diseases.”

We stressed that the need to hold a video conference due to the COVID-19 was a stark reminder of how “human degradation of wildlife habitats, including through industrial scale agriculture, is linked to the spread of infectious zoonotic diseases.” Livestock often serve as intermediate or “amplifier” hosts, particularly when industrial operations make large numbers of animals of low genetic diversity more vulnerable. Bird flu and the African swine fever are other devastating examples of this challenge.

In our statement and the formal CAN submission to KJWA, we called upon governments to help catalyze a transformational shift in livestock systems through the Parties’ climate commitments at the UNFCCC and through their national climate and adaptation plans and funding streams. The end goal must be a transformational shift towards less and better livestock production. Such a shift should benefit people, nature and climate in an equitable manner without undermining food security and nutrition.

In the run-up to this meeting, IATP together with the Climate Land Ambition Rights Alliance (CLARA) made a formal submission to the KJWA on a set of principles and recommendations that should guide how governments at the UNFCCC address livestock. We stressed that absolute emissions must be the metric for any livestock-related climate action: Use of “emissions intensity” or “feed-conversion efficiencies” as measures of impact disguises continued high emission pathways associated with increased production volumes. Worse, current measures of “efficiency” serve primarily to justify super-intensive industrial agriculture pathways in which the link between animal and landscape is completely severed. This type of production negatively affects biodiversity and achievement of several Sustainable Development Goals.

We also emphasized that “livestock systems are a part of larger social, cultural and political landscapes and require a holistic vision for their management. Managing livestock’s climate impact must therefore not be limited to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions alone, but to the overall impact on equity, labor and human rights, biodiversity and other planetary boundaries. The use of manure from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to produce biogas must not be considered or incentivised as an emissions reduction tool. This process incentivizes more manure production and associated water and air pollution, still emits significant GHGs, and increasingly is being used to further prop up the growing natural gas infrastructure, thereby slowing the transition toward truly renewable sources of energy.”

Equity must be central to livestock related climate action as well. Reiterating the findings from our 2018 report with GRAIN, we noted, “Seven countries (U.S., EU, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand) currently account for 43% of the world’s livestock related emissions, even as they represent 15% of the world’s population.” They account for over 60% of the emissions when China is included. An equity-based approach requires countries with the highest historical per capita emissions, surplus livestock production and nutritionally high per capita consumption of meat and dairy products to take the lead. Industrialized countries that are major importers of livestock products should also account for these offshored emissions. Countries with low historical per capita emissions in agriculture and low per capita consumption of meat and dairy must not bear the burden of leading reduction efforts in the livestock sector.

We called on countries to support a Rights-based approach to climate action, including the Right to Food, the Right of Peasants and the Right of Indigenous Peoples and to “Recognize, protect, promote and support pastoral and mixed use agroecological systems for livelihoods, biodiversity and climate benefits.”

The way forward on livestock is the following:

  1. Ecosystems restoration and human rights should be a central priority for livestock management. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Climate and Land prioritizes protecting and restoring the planet’s ecosystems to limit warming to 1.5°C. Without ecosystem restoration and integrity, agricultural production cannot be climate resilient and sustained. Weak ecosystem governance undermines the effectiveness of food-security policies and the ability of people to farm. This requires that farmers, Indigenous Peoples and local communities be empowered to build agrobiodiversity. In order to do so, governments must recognize farmers and pastoralists’ contribution in maintaining ecological functions.
  2. Regulate polluters: Climate policies designed to address emissions should regulate effectively the industrial livestock sector as well as other industries with economic ties with this industry.
  3. A Just Transition for farmers and farm and food workers towards healthy food and agriculture. This includes tackling existing inequalities on the ground, participation of food growers in decision making for their future and a holistic shift towards agroecology. The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), the world largest food workers trade union, is also currently in the process of developing a climate change policy and rights framework for the livestock sector based on Just Transition principles.

Over the two-day discussion, governments failed to address land use change. We highlighted this fact in our CAN closing statement: “We have spent time today speaking largely about 39% of the emissions that come from livestock (enteric fermentation), while leaving out a big cow in the room — which is namely, CO2 Emissions from livestock related land use change and CO2 and non-CO2 emissions from feed production and processing… Forty-five percent of livestock emissions come from these key activities and it is unfortunate that we have run out of time to discuss how we tackle these issues. This is particularly critical given the feedback loop that this segment of the emissions have on biodiversity loss, fertiliser run-off and increase of deadzones. Both biodiversity loss and deadzones are in turn exacerbated by climate change and in turn lead to increasing emissions — a very problematic feedback loop that impacts the adaptation and mitigation related to livestock management.” There is thus much work ahead in getting governments to take serious and comprehensive action on the multiple impacts of industrial livestock production.

The KJWA concluded its sixth and final workshop this week on the socioeconomic and food security dimensions of climate change in the agricultural sector. Now it remains to be seen how governments and the UNFCCC translate these workshops into action on agriculture at COP 26.

Read the CAN Statement on livestock at the UNFCCC Koronivia session.

Read the CAN Closing Statement on livestock at the UNFCCC Koronivia session.

Read the CLARA Submission to the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture. 

Read the CAN Submission to the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture


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