Beware of False GHG Emissions Data

September 5, 2019

There have been several climate change legislation proposals in Congress since the 2018 election, including the much-publicized Green New Deal, but the most serious legislative work on major issues like climate legislation begins in Congressional committees. The House Democratic majority has major initiatives taking place in two committees; the House “Select Committee on the Climate Crisis” which was formed after the 2018 election, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which traditionally has jurisdiction over these matters. Both efforts are timed to have proposals ready in advance of the 2020 elections. Regardless, the serious legislative effort on this topic will not take place until after the 2020 election.

Many environmental groups and advocates are using this legislative effort to take aim at U.S. agriculture.  Whether deliberately, or through a misunderstanding of the statistics, these groups appear willing to paint agriculture’s greenhouse gas footprint in the most negative light possible.

For example, an opinion piece published last month in Forbes Magazine (You and Meat can Save the Planet, August 23, 2019) relied on a set of seriously flawed, if not outright wrong, statistics. The article states, “You and me can collectively eat a plant-based diet two times a day or more, and effectively help solve our entire climate crisis, one bite at a time.” The centerpiece of the argument is a statistic from a 2009 report by the Worldwatch Institute that claims worldwide livestock agriculture is responsible for 51% of all the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions! The more accepted figure for this estimate is 14.5%, as reported by the UN in 2010 and in subsequent UN updates.

Fortunately, there are scientists monitoring the improper uses of statistics. Dr. Frank Mitloehner of UC Davis quickly tweeted to Forbes, directing them to his work pointing out this 51% statistic is seriously flawed and recommending that they correct the story or even better, retract it.

One reliable source of statistics about ag emissions is generated by EPA. The EPA GHG inventories, published since the early 2000s, have consistently shown U.S. agriculture as productive and efficient and accounting for a small share of GHG emissions.  The table below summarizes the EPA findings from 2017 in its 2019 report. Agriculture is responsible for about 9% of all U.S. emissions, livestock agriculture is about half of agriculture’s emissions, and poultry production (meat birds plus layers) accounts for about 0.1% of all emissions. Those are good statistics for egg producers to know and use.

Computed from US EPA Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, 2019, Chapter 5