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Cattle - The scapegoat of global warming?

Is it so simple to blame rising methane levels to beef and dairy production from cattle?

To understand the root cause, the most basic (and most valuable) statistics of all should be compared - Worldwide Cattle Population Vs Atmospheric Methane Levels

From 1984-2018

Data gathered here into this graph at first glance may show us two increasing trends signifying a direct link that increasing cattle numbers (*1) over the years are at least partly responsible for the gradual rise in methane in the atmosphere (*2).

However, there is a main factor that suggests the opposite, during the 6 yearlong trend between 2001 and 2007. Six years is a long enough timeframe that can confirm to us that this is not an anomaly on a short timescale, and any inaccuracies in data (3*) gathered through these years will be unsubstantial.

Within this second graph of the same data over the shorter time frame, we can see a dramatic increase in the cattle population of 80,000,000 head, a rise of the steepest gradient of any other 6-year time spans since 1984, whereas within these same years the global methane levels increased by an extremely small margin of 6.5 parts per billion, almost a complete pause in the rise.

To put in perspective, this is approximately a 6% increase in worldwide methane-belching cattle population in just 6 years, vs a 0.37% increase in global methane levels that have almost all but levelled off.

Methane emissions from cattle should rise as their population rises, due to more animals alive that emit the gas. However, as the atmospheric levels aren't increasing during this period, it shows there is much more complexity to it.

The natural balance of methane levels in the atmosphere

It is commonly quoted how methane is broken down into CO2 in the atmosphere after 8-12 years. What the data above is showing us, is that there is a greater breakdown of methane during 2001-2007 than what was being added through emissions.

The chemical species responsible for breaking down our emitted methane is known as the Hydroxyl Radical (OH), and it appears this atmospheric detergent that destroys methane back into water and carbon dioxide, is on the decline overall. Hydroxyl is formed from water vapour in the presence of UV light from the sun. But it has measured to have fallen by approximately 7% since early 2000. (4*)

Everything in our atmosphere is in fine balance, and it can be said with great probability the recent decline of the Hydroxyl Radical (OH), is not down to our cattle, but more likely a man-made issue, of other pollutants perhaps.

Or, counterintuitively, the recent recovery of the ozone layer means that more UV light is absorbed in the highest levels of the atmosphere by the renewed ozone, and UV light which is needed to create hydroxyl of which there is now less penetrating down to our lower atmosphere where Hydroxyl resides. Therefore, does this mean what has once been damaged, is best to remain damaged?

Does it seem the changes humans have made to the atmosphere and climate have been altered so intricately to a point we cannot reverse the changes, similar to how we can't make our grass-fed beef roast raw again if we cool it as much as we heated it? Perhaps we have altered the natural order, leaving the climate addicted to its own damage.

This is one possibility of thousands for the disappearance of Hydroxyl, but what is most important, is that the true cause of our rising Methane levels is tackled appropriately, through finding the reason behind the decline in Hydroxyl. Not through a scapegoat. It is easy to blame the farming industry, of which about 90% are run by families and individuals, with no real unified way to defend against the claims which are so financially and mentally destructive to the industry.


(3*) "Our world in data" tracks a reliable source of data for cattle numbers by ensuring inclusion of less developed areas of Africa and India where other sources omitted the readings where they seemed unreliable, this shows data taken from elsewhere to show a more flat trend in cattle population which appears to be incorrect. A flat trend of cattle population would actually further disprove any affect they have on Methane emmisions and levels at all.


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