In December 2021, the wonderfully animated educational channel Kurzgesagt put out a video titled Is Meat really that bad? This is the only video in question here. I’m not saying you should avoid Kurzgesagt’s channel. Aside from this video, I’ve enjoyed Kurzgesagt quite a bit. I’ve even bought their merch.
Their video seeks to show how bad cows are for the environment, but their argument is simply misleading because it is incomplete.
Actually, it’s a bit more nuanced than the typical “cow bad” piece, which is appreciated, but several corners were cut and the end result is 7 million people were mislead by incomplete logic.
Let’s put the video’s narrative in perspective first
Please imagine for a moment that I made a video titled Rice: The hidden menace of the Planet. This imaginary video would made a case for why we should assume rice is very bad for the planet, and that we should probably stop eating it. The main points of the video were the following:
・Rice is a staple food for over half of the world’s population.(S)
・It emits 3.3 times the methane of beef per gram of protein(S)
・Methane has caused 23-40% of human made warming so far.(S)
・The science surrounding the exact amount of warming we can attribute to methane is complicated so we won’t bother you with it in this video.
The first three bullet points are in fact true, I didn’t make that up. Take a moment to think about how you would feel about such a narrative. Something feels a little fishy about it, doesn’t it?
(Just in case, I’m not actually saying we need to stop eating rice, I’m just trying to make a point about how Kurzgesagt’s narrative is very misleading.)
OK, let’s get going. There’s 4 key points about Kurzgesagt’s video to discuss.
1. Kurzgesagt explains beef has more emissions than plants
Kurzgesagt brings up data from this Poore and Nemecek study, which they describe as “the most detailed meta analysis of lifecycle assessments to date…” and say that beef emissions come out on top as the worst..
These bars in the picture above are expressing the GHG’s necessary to produce a kg of this food. Kurzgesagt says that of course the most important aspect of our food isn’t weight, but “nutrient density.”
So per the data in the study, if you compare by calories or protein, you get this spread, and you still see that beef isn’t so great. (Of course they’re not actually looking at “nutrient density,” they’re looking at “protein density” … but let’s keep going.)
They acknowledge there are some differences from farm to farm - some beef can be more sustainably raised than others, but that the best beef is still worse than the worst plant food.
2. Kurzgesagt explains the problem with beef is the methane
They explain that by far, the largest share of beef emissions comes from methane released directly from the animals.
They acknowledge that CO2 stays in the atmosphere far longer than methane, but that methane’s warming impact is higher. To put methane’s warming impact in perspective, they say: “Methane has already caused 23 to 40% of human made warming so far.”
Around 5:22 in the video they say: “There is controversy about how bad this is exactly, and we don’t want to dive in too deep here.”
■Quick recap. Kurzgesagt has said:
1. Beef’s climate footprint is huge
2. What makes up the largest share of Beef’s footprint is its methane emissions.
3. Methane has caused 23-40% of human made warming so far.
4. Instead of elaborating, they say methane is complicated and move on.
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3. Methane has caused up to 40% of man made warming. So?
…OK so what if methane itself has caused 23-40% of man made warming? Tons of things emit methane: Rice cultivation, wheat and sugarcane crop residues, oil and natural gas wells, landfills, coal mining, sewage ponds, various industrial processes.
Unintentional leaks of methane from gas wells are turning out to be a huge problem.(S)
On a Bloomberg video about dying gas wells: “In many cases, these marginal wells, they’re actually a lot dirtier than coal. Because so much of the methane that comes out of these wells is actually escaping into the air…”
Frank Mitloehner @GHGGuru
The recent sabotage of the European gas pipelines Northstream 1 and 2 has caused the release of methane equating to an estimated 7MMTCO2e. Just to put this into perspective, this is the same amount of GHG given off by the entire California dairy industry over a period of 1 year.
5:20 AM ∙ Oct 1, 2022
So what we really want to know is how much of that methane that caused “23-40% of warming so far” is directly from cows?
Astonishingly, this was not addressed by Kurzgesagt.
Further, That 23-40% figure comes from OurWorldinData and it is looking at a huge timeline. In their footnote, it’s explained that this is looking at methane’s contributions from 1750 to 2011. How are we supposed to elucidate cattle’s contribution to that 261 years of methane emission.
Just looking at the period from 1900 to 2000, the cattle population dramatically increased in North America, South and Central America, Europe, Africa, North Asia, South Asia and Oceania(Source)
That’s just 100 years. OurWorldinData is looking at 261 years. How did the cattle population change from 1750 to 1900? We need to consider this and many other factors to get an idea of just how much cattle contributed to the planet warming caused by methane over 261 years. By the way, 30-60 million Bison roamed the United States until 1830.(S)
In any case, I hope you’ll agree that that this factoid from OurWorldInData is not relevant.
What we really want to know is how much are the current cattle emissions contributing to methane production now and how much warming is methane incurring now?
Methane from cattle(Video) How Kurzgesagt Cooks Propaganda For Billionaires
According to unep.org, “Livestock emissions – from manure and gastroenteric releases – account for roughly 32 per cent of human-caused methane emissions.”
IGSD put it at 33% in 2010 (adding Enteric Fermentation and manure)
4. If we’re going to blame cows because of methane, we should probably try to understand how methane actually works.
As I mentioned in my video from April of 2021, 10% of the United States’ planet warming contribution (CO2 equivalent) comes from methane.
Methane is known as a flow gas. Meaning, it’s emitted, it warms the earth but it’s broken down in about 10 or 12 years. CO2 on the other hand is a stock gas. It stays in the atmosphere for 30 to 100 times longer than methane. So it piles up year after year. This is very important. (If this paragraph isn’t clear enough, please check the video below. It should go straight to 17:17 where the methane cycle explanation starts.)
I recently made a one minute youtube “short” titled Beef is not as bad as we thought explaining that the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report suggests that methane from cows is 3-4 times less of a contributor to warming than was previously thought. Quote from Chapter 7, page 123 of the report: “…expressing methane emissions as CO2 equivalent emissions using GWP-100 overstates the effect of constant methane emissions on global surface temperature by a factor of 3-4 over a 20-year time horizon...”
This is huge. IPCC is pretty much THE authority on the state of knowledge on climate climate change.
With this in mind, what you would want to know is whether cattle emissions are constant or not. Here’s the cattle herd for the U.S. for the past 18 years:
Here’s the global cattle herd:
Doesn’t look like it’s been growing.
In my video Eating less Meat won’t save the Planet I said that 2.7% of the United States planet warming contribution comes from methane production from cows. Yet, using the new data from the IPCC report for a back-of-the-envelope calculation, U.S. cattle’s methane may in fact comprise as little as 0.68% to 0.9%* to U.S.’s total planet warming effect.
*Of course this IPCC data on methane needs to be applied to other constant sources of methane in the U.S. so it’s not as clean as just dividing by 3 or 4, but you get the idea - while 2.7% is already quite low, that figure should now be even lower.
To give you an idea of how methane is more of a cycle, take a look at this image. There are sources of methane, but there are also very powerful methane sinks. If you’d like to learn more about this, I highly recommend taking a look at this presentation by Dr. Frank Mitloehner.
He’s spoken about this complicated nature of methane for a couple years now… and now the 2021 IPCC report finally reflects precisely what Mitloehner has been explaining.
So again, Kurzgesagt says
(1) “Meat, but especially beef is the worst food in terms of emissions,” and that
(2) What makes up the largest share of Beef’s footprint is its methane emissions.
So you would think they should really nail this methane component, or they basically haven’t said anything. But instead, it’s explained that cows emit a lot of methane, and it’s implied that methane is really bad… and therefore cows are bad.
Kurzgesagt in general produces a lot of great, really compelling content. This video on the other hand was disappointing and felt uncharacteristic of a channel I came to respect. I have no idea what their thought process was here, but my guess is they went into this video with the utter confidence that the “cows are bad for the planet” narrative must be true, so when it came to substantiate the most important point of their video, they called it a day and went out for lunch.
Now, considering there’s no “everyone knows rice is bad for the planet!” narrative, imagine the backlash if I made that imaginary video I mentioned at the start of the article.
-Rice is a staple food for over half of the world’s population.(S)
-It emits 3.3 times the methane of beef per gram of protein(S)
-Methane has caused 23-40% of human made warming so far.
-Methane is complicated so don’t worry about it.
Backlash would be very much justified, right? Yet since Kurzgesagt’s video is on the “right side,” it doesn’t get questioned too much.
It comes from an older paper (1995), but consider this quote:
“Ruminant livestock can produce 250 to 500 L of methane per day. This level of production results in estimates of the contribution by cattle to global warming that may occur in the next 50 to 100 yr to be a little less than 2%.”
How did we go from such tiny numbers in 1995 to where we are now?
By the way, a new 2021 paper says that a meat-free diet will reduce a New Zealander’s greenhouse gas emissions by only 3-4% over their lifetime.
P.S. The Kurzgesagt video relies a lot on a very famous 2018 Paper by Poore and Nemecek. It’s pretty much seen as the “checkmate” paper, the trump card to persuade people that plant-based is in fact the way to save the planet. I recognized it right away because I’ve seen it on the pro vegan film The Game Changers and more than one of the videos criticizing my video on this topic: Eating less meat won’t save the planet. I won’t dig into that paper now, because I’ve already talked about the many flaws with this paper on page 29 of the PDF in this rebuttal I wrote to Earthling Ed’s critique of my video. You can read that for more perspective on this issue.
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