Why mainstream narratives on climate and livestock create multiple injustices

Published on 2 November 2021

Ian Scoones

Professorial Fellow

In the build up to COP26 in Glasgow there has been much talk of curbing emissions of methane, with livestock farming being pointed to as a major culprit. The Global Methane Pledge, now signed up to by over 30 countries, aims to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. This could have major implications for livestock production across the world.

But which livestock and where? In a recent report, the European Research Council funded PASTRES programme has highlighted how lumping all livestock into the same climate mitigation basket makes no sense. There is an urgent need to differentiate. Not all livestock systems are big polluters, and extensive pastoral systems can be climate neutral under the right conditions, while offering many other environmental and livelihood benefits.

Creating injustices

The current system of climate assessment creates significant biases against extensive livestock production through the way the calculations are made. As we argue in a new IDS Bulletin article – Livestock and climate justice: challenging mainstream policy narratives – this generates an array of injustices – through the framing of debates and policy knowledge (epistemic injustice); through procedures that act to exclude certain people and perspectives (procedural injustice) and through the distributional consequences of policies (distributional injustice). And pastoralists – some of the poorest and most marginalised of peoples across the world – are in particular at the receiving end.

Of course this is not intentional, but without attention to the way measurements happen, verifications occur and climate reporting is designed significant harm can be done. Injustices arise through the way science is conducted, which is mostly on industrial, contained systems, not in extensive, mobile pastoral settings. Alternatives, we argue, require new forms of knowledge production, linked to wider understandings of systems and based on local knowledge and contexts, especially in extensive and mobile pastoral systems.

Injustices also arise through the way global processes for climate assessment and mitigation are conducted. These are through aggregated approaches that do not differentiate and in turn create national accounting measures (Nationally Determined Contributions) and standardised modelling, measurement and verification procedures for global accounting that do not differentiate in ways that distinguish different production systems. Methane is methane as far as such procedures are concerned.

Mainstream narratives on climate and livestock – and the policies and campaign messages that they generate – thus often focus on the products of livestock production – meat or milk, say – rather than the processes of production – industrial or extensive systems. This creates distortions in responses, as the focus is often on the products through changing consumption patterns and diets – reducing animal source foods – and switching to alternatives – such as plant based products or lab-based cultured meats or milks – rather than changing the production system.

Strategic simplifications

A focus on products not production systems therefore misses the point. However, this may suit certain interests, who may wish to hide behind a generalised, undifferentiated story. The big polluters in the livestock sector are not extensive livestock farmers and pastoralists, but massive industrial producers, who make up a significant share of global production, and make use of strategic simplifications and aggregate figures to argue for the value of all meat or milk products everywhere.

Meanwhile, some of those who point to the (very real) dangers of livestock production – through impacts on the climate, through deforestation and through unhealthy diets – make the same mistake, lumping all meat and milk consumption into a singular commitment to shift diets, reduce livestock farming and release space for ‘rewilding’ or conservation use. Such a position is often twinned with advocating ‘eco-modernist’ technical solutions for cultured meats and factory produced ‘sustainable’ plant products; again supporting certain interests who benefit from a storyline without nuance.

But it is the material conditions of production – who produces what, where and through what relations of capital and labour – not the product itself that make the difference. In capitalist, industrial livestock systems, for example, extensive climate damage is caused through methane emissions from animal digestion, as well as from concentrated waste, the importation of feed, transportation of products and the sunk costs of infrastructure. Profits are reaped when such pollution is not accounted for. Some argue that energy-intensive, lab-based cultured food alternatives may well have similar issues.

Yet, such intensive, capitalist modes of production are totally different to an extensive system. Here, of course methane is emitted from animals, but often in lesser amounts than assumed due to careful livestock management. The impacts of waste, transport, infrastructure and so on are however much lower. Many pastoral systems have a very different relationship to capital and profit, with quite different implications for labour too. Our report argues for a more comprehensive ‘systems’ approach to assessment that takes account of wider political economy relations. This needs to encompass all factors and so come to a more balanced – and just – assessment.

Hitting the wrong target

If pastoralists get wrapped up in the wider – and certainly valid – attempts to reduce methane emissions, they will be the wrong target. Their emissions are low, and their wider value to society and the environment is great – for example, providing high-density protein and other nutrients to consumers, offering income and livelihoods to many and protecting the environment and enhancing biodiversity in rangelands in over half the world’s land surface. Addressing climate change is a massively urgent global challenge, but effective mitigation needs locally appropriate solutions that are context specific and locally grounded.

As our IDS Bulletin article argues, it is about time that considerations of justice become central to climate impact assessments and mitigation measures decided through global processes such as the IPCC and the climate COPs. Otherwise, noble but misdirected efforts could cause unexpected damage and multiple injustices.

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