CHONGQING, China — At a 27th-floor apartment at a high rise of this southwestern Chinese city, Zhan Li is making lunch for her family. She steamed fish and fried pork ribs, and took a pot of bubbling duck soup off the gas stove.
“When I was a child, I used to eat meat once or twice a month,” Zhan said while turning on the fire for the next dish. “Now, I am cooking meat daily, trying to catch up with what I missed years ago,” the 43-year-old added.
Zhan is one of many Chinese who are increasingly bringing meat to their dining table. They do so for reasons of nutrition, but experts worry that the shift will lead to a tougher struggle on another front: China’s battle against global warming.
Greenhouse gases are generated at every stage of livestock production. Animal wastes and the digestive process emit methane, which scientists say can warm the planet 34 times faster than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Animal wastes also emit another type of greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide, which is nearly 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
According to government statistics, China’s livestock production contributed to more than half of greenhouse gas emissions in its agricultural activities, releasing emissions equivalent to 445 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2005 — the latest data available.
That only takes into account direct emissions. When considering carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels in facilities that raise and process animals for food, as well as greenhouse gas emissions associated with feed production and meat transportation, the overall climate impact of the livestock sector would be bigger.
Experts here are still trying to figure out how big that impact is, but they know it will be noteworthy. A report published in 2013 by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) shows that emissions from global livestock production accounts for 14.5 percent of total man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, playing a bigger role in causing climate change than all the cars combined. China — which is responsible for producing half the world’s pork, one-fifth of the world’s poultry and 10 percent of the world’s beef — is leading the pack in terms of livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions.
A nation begins to beef up
These emissions are likely to grow because China’s appetite for meat is soaring. Statistics from the FAO show that annual meat consumption in China already quadrupled to 59.5 kilograms per person between 1985 and 2005, and experts expect the increase to continue — driven by Chinese customers’ rising income and higher desire for a protein-rich lifestyle.
Meanwhile, the type of meat that the Chinese prefer is also changing. Historically, pork has had a central role in China’s cuisine and culture: The written Chinese character for “home” even depicts a pig under a roof. However, a recent study by Netherlands-based Rabobank, a global leader in food and agricultural financing, found that pork’s share of total meat consumption in China has decreased from 80 percent in 1985 to 65 percent in 2011, while the shares of beef, sheep meat and poultry have all increased.
Although quantitative analysis is still needed, the changing diet has a potential to halt China’s climate change mitigation, said Pan Genxing, director of the Agriculture and Climate Change Center at Nanjing Agriculture University. That is because raising cows is a more resource-intensive process than growing pigs, Pan said. His team now is conducting a study that compares carbon footprints among different types of meat production, the first of its kind in the nation.
Some may argue that Chinese citizens just want to enjoy a diet that Westerners have taken for granted for years, and even for now, on average, every American still consumes twice as much meat as every person in China does. But as researchers at New York-based think tank Brighter Green explained in their 2011 report, “Given that nearly every fifth person in the world is Chinese, even small increases in individual meat or dairy consumption will have broad, collective environmental as well as climate impacts.”
There are also concerns that China’s rising meat consumption will not only drive up its own greenhouse gas emissions but also emissions elsewhere. Already, China in recent years has signed multibillion-dollar deals to buy feed crops worldwide. If Chinese citizens want to eat more beef, it will likely also come from abroad because of limited land resources at home, said Mia MacDonald, executive director of Brighter Green.
Since audits on the international trade and associated emissions barely exist so far, countries like Brazil and Paraguay stand a chance of being accused of causing huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, even though part of their emissions are linked to producing feed crops and livestock products for Chinese customers, MacDonald said.
She added that the dispute is similar to one that is already happening between China and Western nations, which first outsourced their climate pollution to China by relocating factories there — and then blaming China for speeding up global warming.
Underestimated greenhouse gas
Still, livestock-related emissions and associated issues are not in the spotlight of international climate negotiations, partly because of the difficulty of measuring the emissions accurately, MacDonald said. The result, she said, is a lack of awareness on the subject among global policymakers and China may hardly be an exception (See related story).
“When I was invited by Chinese scholars to Shanghai and Beijing in 2010, my colleagues and I gave presentations about emissions from livestock production. There were a few people from the government attending the meetings. Our talks were well-received by Chinese officials but surprised them,” MacDonald recalled. “My sense is that this was not very well-known in China.”
Three years later, things may not have changed much here. Although the Chinese government has announced ambitious targets for emission cuts and poured billions of dollars annually to promote low-carbon technologies, energy-intensive industrial sectors such as power generation and transportation are the main focus, said Wanqing Zhou, a Brighter Green associate who researches China’s climate action. She added that detailed policies on low-carbon animal production are still a blank in the nation.
“As far as I know, the connection between meat consumption and greenhouse gas emission has not become the mainstream among policymakers,” Zhou said. “It’s hard to say whether the inaction is due to lack of interest. It’s possible that the (Chinese) government is looking into this issue, while capacity limitations and management difficulties undermine the ambition.”
A recent call to a leading Chinese organization then shed some light on how industry players think about their carbon footprints.
“We do follow news on emissions reduction, but no one in the association is studying this,” said a staffer who answered the phone at the Beijing office of the China Animal Agriculture Association. “The association presents the need of Chinese livestock industry. So far, no livestock producers have asked us about lowering greenhouse gas emissions,” the staff member said.
Carbon trading, waste management may help
To be sure, although China has yet to issue regulations specifically targeting livestock-related emissions, emissions reduction can be a byproduct of other activities. For instance, in order to curb pollution, Chinese policymakers have banned direct release of animal waste, a major source of methane and nitrous oxide.
Chinese policymakers have also encouraged domestic livestock producers to take advantage of international carbon trading. The country’s poultry giant Shandong Minhe Animal Husbandry Co. Ltd., for one, has built biogas plants running on chicken manure, producing clean energy while harvesting carbon credits worth millions of dollars.
But with current carbon prices at historic lows and sluggish progress on the United Nations climate negotiations, doubts run high on whether Chinese livestock producers will continue developing emissions reduction projects in exchange for carbon credits. While China has ramped up its own financial assistance, some experts wonder whether the country’s livestock industry — dominated by small producers — will be able to generate enough wastes to sustain an economic biogas plant’s operation.
Dong Renjie, an expert in waste management at the China Agricultural University in Beijing, acknowledged that the challenge is to persuade Chinese livestock producers to treat and reuse their animal waste. But he insisted the government is working hard to make a positive change.
“Last year, China’s environmental protection ministry issued a new regulation, which allows subsidizing the practice of turning animal wastes into organic fertilizers,” Dong said. “The government is also taking notes on countries that have succeeded in promoting biogas technology. I believe we will soon come up with more practical policies and popularize the use of manure-based biogas.”
Chinese scientists, too, are trying to help. Already, a team in central China’s Anhui province has developed a new strain of cattle that emits 60 percent less methane for each kilogram of beef production compared with the original variety in the region. There are also ongoing research efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through providing animals higher-quality feeds.
Will Chinese customers also get involved in livestock-related emissions reduction and host events like “meat-free Mondays”? Zhan, who was preparing the fish, pork and duck soup meal for her family here, seemed to be surprised by the question. “I don’t think we are eating too much meat,” she said while continuing to cook in her kitchen.
Photo courtesy of Flickr