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What is climate-neutral beef?

December 14, 2023
What is climate-neutral beef?

Beef sustainability encompasses the multifaceted environmental, economic and social aspects of production systems that upcycle feedstuffs inedible for humans into high-quality beef protein for human consumption. Discussion around the environmental impacts associated with beef production often focuses on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as a measurable value. Carbon footprints are a tool for quantifying those emissions to benchmark baseline GHG production of beef systems.  

Carbon footprints include three main GHGs — carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) — and each has a different global warming potential (GWP). The GWP is a measure of how much heat a gas will absorb in the atmosphere in relation to CO2 over a given time frame. The larger the GWP, the more that gas warms the earth compared to CO2. Carbon footprints are expressed as carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2-eq), which accounts for the different GWP of each GHG relative to CO2.

Visualization of comparative warming impact of a single emission of a tonne of methane (CH4) or nitrous oxide (N2O) compared to a ton of carbon dioxide, averaged over 20 years and 100 years. Source: Crops and Soils.

As companies set sustainability goals to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, carbon footprints are one piece of the GHG accounting puzzle. The IPCC has concluded that net-zero emissions by 2050 will be necessary to remain consistent at 1.5°C of warming, and net zero is recognized as the international goal to bring the climate crisis to a halt. Similarly, the Paris Agreement, set in 2015 as an international treaty on climate change, states its goals in terms of temperature, targeting global warming limits of less than 2°C.

Carbon neutral, net zero, or climate positive?

Whether emissions goals are discussed in relation to temperature or volume reductions, several terms are used interchangeably, often leading to confusion. “Carbon neutral,” “net zero” and “climate positive” sound similar, and all can be used to describe emissions (CO2 or CO2-eq) above, below, or at a net level of zero — but they refer to different GHG accounting outcomes.

Carbon neutral refers to a business removing the same amount of CO2 from the atmosphere as it releases, thus making the carbon accounting balance zero.

Net-zero emissions balance the total GHGs emitted by an activity, not just CO2, with an equivalent amount of removed, reduced or avoided emissions from the atmosphere. For example, a beef production system may be classified as net zero if GHG emissions from the system are balanced by an equivalent amount sequestered on the land that produced the beef. Similarly to net zero, climate neutrality can be achieved by emitting GHGs at an equal rate to their removal from the atmosphere.

Carbon negative and climate positive are used interchangeably and generally refer to the same accounting outcome. Both mean that an activity goes beyond achieving net zero by removing more CO2-eq or CO2 from the atmosphere than is emitted, thereby producing an additional environmental benefit. So, for example, beef production may be considered climate positive if more carbon was sequestered than emitted by the system.

Carbon positive is an additional term commonly used. It means that an entity produces more emissions than zero. Not to be confused with carbon negative, carbon positive describes most business-as-usual situations, as most companies produce more carbon than they remove from the atmosphere.

Where is beef production on the negative, neutral, positive scale?

In 2021, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) verified the U.S. beef industry’s commitment to sustainability with the announcement of its environmental goal to attain climate neutrality in U.S. cattle production by 2040. In order for the beef sector to reach climate neutrality, innovation will be required, with a focus on methane emissions. Possible paths to climate neutrality for the beef and dairy sectors are discussed in a white paper published by the CLEAR Center (Place, S.E., and F.M. Mitloehner, 2021), highlighting the important fact that the GHG footprints of animal agriculture are largely made up of methane.

Applying metrics that account for warming differences in long-lived CO2 and short-lived CH4 emissions, animal agriculture’s goal of climate neutrality can be met by reaching net-zero CO2 emissions combined with stable or declining emissions of short-lived GHGs such as CH4. Reducing enteric and methane emissions by 18–32% in the coming decades can help the cattle industry reach climate neutrality by 2050, but not without partnered reductions in emissions of CO2 and N2O from feed production, land use and energy use (Place and Mitloehner, 2021).

A diagram of gas emissions

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Representation of the difference in atmospheric concentration responses for a scenario of constant annual emissions between long-lived, stock gases such as CO2 and short-lived, flow gases such as CH4. Adapted from Allen et al., 2018.
Source: CLEAR Center Climate Neutrality White Paper.

In short, climate neutrality goals for the beef industry are obtainable within the timelines set, but the shift will require strong and constant collaboration throughout the agriculture sector to make sure that these goals in sustainable economic, social and environmental outcomes are being met.

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