Why COP26 must address animal issues
A guest blog by Emma Slawinski, our Director of Advocacy and Policy.
This week sees the beginning of COP26, the UN-led climate change meeting where 196 countries come together to negotiate and agree action to halt, mitigate and adapt for climate change. Climate change is fundamentally altering our planet with extreme weather events now feeling commonplace, changing sea levels, and ecosystems beginning to fail.
We have a climate and nature crisis on our hands
But it cannot be seen in isolation, or worse, reduced down to a conversation about carbon emissions. We have a climate AND nature crisis on our hands, up to one million plant and animal species face extinction, with many already on the brink. We're already breaching many of the conditions scientists say are vital to sustaining human life on earth - known as planetary boundaries.
As well as climate change, the use of agricultural fertilizers has dangerously altered the natural levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in our land, sea and atmosphere (known as biogeochemical flows) and the loss of biodiversity and animal extinctions threatens the ecosystem we rely on to survive. Indeed these two areas are identified as greater risks than climate change by the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
The changing climate and impacts on the natural world, whilst issues of the utmost importance, are only symptoms. As the leaders of the world come together in Glasgow, they must address the root causes of climate change and nature destruction.
The welfare of animals is not on the agenda for COP26
The billions of sentient creatures with whom we share the world are absent from these discussions. Many might see no problem with this; why would animals be relevant to these discussions on human-made problems needing urgent intergovernmental attention? But leaving animal issues out of these discussions is a major misstep; our relationship with animals is both a cause, a major impact point, and a potential solution to the climate and nature crisis.
Agriculture, and in particular intensive livestock farming, is a major driver of climate change and nature destruction. Intensive farming's model of large numbers of animals, living together in crowded conditions, producing concentrated waste, and being fed grain grown on soil supported by artificial fertilizers is putting our ability to meet the Paris climate targets at serious risk.
Nitrous oxide, given off by animal manure and artificial fertiliser, is a key greenhouse gas with a warming effect 300 times greater than carbon dioxide. The role of agriculture in radically changing the nitrogen cycle is widely recognised as a key way in which we're breaking the safe boundaries for sustaining human life on earth.
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Animals are majorly impacted by the environmental changes
Reducing the number of animals being farmed globally - and the amount of meat, eggs and dairy being consumed - should be a key focus of any discussion on climate change. COP would be a perfect opportunity for the member governments to challenge each other to set targets for reduction. The topic of livestock reduction is totally absent in all but the most general terms around 'sustainable agriculture'.
Animals are majorly impacted by the changes in the environment caused by human activity. Alongside the alarming figures around the extinction of species, we see individual suffering writ large in the destruction of habitats, water scarcity and extreme weather events.
The fires raging in the Amazon, California, Canada and Australia all caused significant loss of animal as well as human lives. And at a domestic level in the UK, we at the RSPCA are increasingly asked for our guidance in helping to keep pets cool, prevent footpad burning on dog walks and how to support dehydrated animals in unprecedented temperatures.
However, changing our relationships with the animals around us could present vital solutions to the climate and nature crisis. Extensive and regenerative farming models, in which fewer animals graze on pasture, fertilizing the soil naturally and working in harmony with nature can sequester carbon, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere, and reverse climate change.
We want to see an end to intensive farming
Choosing to reduce the number of farmed animals even further by embracing alternative proteins and plant-based diets could be "the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use," according to Joseph Poore, the leading researcher for Oxford University's 2018 report into livestock farming and the environment.
While intergovernmental cooperation is crucial to tackling what has been called 'the defining crisis of our time', we all, as individuals, have choices to make and a part to play. Indeed, as COP gets underway, the Government's own chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance has joined nearly 40 government scientific advisors around the world to call for 'significant behavioural transformation' such as cutting meat consumption and flying less.
He advised that individuals should cut consumption of animal products by 35% by 2050 and criticised the government for not addressing these vital issues in its recent net zero strategy. We at the RSPCA want to see an end to intensive farming and all its impacts on the environment and animal welfare and are campaigning for an 'eat less, eat better' approach to animal products.
While animal issues are only given a passing mention in the COP agenda, they cannot and should not be ignored. We're calling on the leaders meeting in Glasgow to recognise that the way we live alongside animals, from wildlife to farmed animals, pets to working animals, is critical to solving the issues that are ravaging our planet.
Individuals can do their bit but only governments, working together, can lead the scale of change that is needed. We cannot hope to truly transform our relationship with the planet if we ignore the billions of creatures we share it with.
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