Globally, food is responsible for about 26% of all greenhouse gas emissions, or roughly 14 billion tCO2eq per year (Ritchie, 2019). If we divide this number by the current global population of almost 8 billion people, we find that the average person emits about 1.75 tCO2eq per year just by eating (or throwing away food).

However, food emissions depend greatly on what you eat and how it was produced. Beef is widely known as a major villain (CDTM, 2021), and beef that is produced by clearing forest in the Amazon is among the worst (Cederberg et al., 2011). 

In this article, we will calculate the average emissions from beef consumption in Bolivia for the period 2001-2020.

In Bolivia, because of the way beef is produced, there are two main sources of greenhouse gas emissions from beef production: 1) Methane emissions from enteric fermentation (the digestive process of the cattle), and 2) CO2 emissions from converting forest to pasture for the cattle.

In addition, there are many different sources of emissions along the supply chain until it reaches the final consumer, from slaughtering, processing, packaging, refrigeration, transportation, to cooking, but these are minor in comparison to the first two and will be ignored in this article.

Both imports and exports of beef were insignificant[1] in Bolivia until 2020 (ITC, 2022), so these will also be ignored, and for the purpose of emissions calculations we will assume that beef consumption in Bolivia is equal to beef production.

Methane emissions from cattle in Bolivia

According to Bolivia’s latest communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), cattle-related methane emissions in 2008 amounted to 13.9 million tCO2eq (Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, 2020). At that time, Bolivia had 7,786,802 heads of cattle (FAO, 2022), so each of them emitted about 1.787 tCO2eq per year. This factor can be assumed to be relatively stable over time and space, and allows us to calculate annual methane emissions from cattle in Bolivia as indicated in Table 1.

Table 1: Bolivian cattle herd, beef production and cattle methane emissions, 2001-2020

 

 

 

Year

 

 

Cattle herd
(FAOSTAT)

 

Beef production (tons)
(FAOSTAT)

Methane emissions from cattle
(million tCO2eq)

2001

6,500,096

160,943

11.6

2002

6,673,475

164,551

11.9

2003

6,851,256

168,226

12.2

2004

7,033,582

172,000

12.6

2005

7,217,507

175,000

12.9

2006

7,409,002

200,000

13.2

2007

7,586,526

244,375

13.6

2008

7,786,802

248,680

13.9

2009

7,985,230

202,026

14.3

2010

8,189,786

202,347

14.6

2011

8,400,439

205,187

15.0

2012

8,620,784

212,595

15.4

2013

8,847,434

215,179

15.8

2014

8,798,354

224,651

15.7

2015

8,948,602

243,000

16.0

2016

9,119,000

252,000

16.3

2017

9,304,000

260,000

16.6

2018

9,556,000

268,000

17.1

2019

9,741,474

266,499

17.4

2020

10,142,680

276,447

18.1

 Average

(2001-2020)

8,235,601          

218,085       

14.7         

Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from FAO (2022) and Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia (2020).

CO2 emissions from converting forest to pasture in Bolivia

Far more important than the methane emissions are the emissions from forests that were burned to create pasture for cattle.[2] 

According to Global Forest Watch (2022), from 2001 to 2021, Bolivia lost 6.67 million hectares of tree cover, causing 3.01Gt of CO₂ emissions, or 451 tCO2/ha, on average. Not all of this is caused by cattle ranching, but a large part is. According to Müller et al. (2014), 51.9% of the deforestation experienced in Bolivia between 2000 and 2010 was caused directly by cattle ranching. No detailed studies are available for the 2010-2020 period, but the number of cattle has increased faster than the area of cropland during the latest decade (FAO, 2022), so there is no reason to suspect cattle ranching has become a less important driver of deforestation lately.  For lack of more detailed information, we will assume that cattle ranching is responsible for 50% of deforestation in Bolivia every year during the last two decades. Table 2 presents the CO2 emissions from cattle-related deforestation using this simplifying assumption.  

Table 2: CO2 emissions from cattle-related deforestation in Bolivia, 2001-2020

 

 

 

Year

Total annual deforestation
(hectares)

(Global Forest Watch)

 

Deforestation caused by cattle ranching
(50%)

CO2 emissions from cattle-related deforestation
(million tCO2)

2001

          140,321

             70,161

31.6

2002

          178,808

             89,404

40.3

2003

          163,759

             81,880

36.9

2004

          203,251

           101,626

45.8

2005

          250,748

           125,374

56.5

2006

          216,314

           108,157

48.8

2007

          189,953

             94,977

42.8

2008

          369,851

           184,926

83.4

2009

          225,270

           112,635

50.8

2010

          451,759

           225,880

101.9

2011

          330,239

           165,120

74.5

2012

          273,544

           136,772

61.7

2013

          179,823

             89,912

40.6

2014

          256,901

           128,451

57.9

2015

          166,275

             83,138

37.5

2016

          470,601

           235,301

106.1

2017

          463,194

           231,597

104.5

2018

          301,856

           150,928

68.1

2019

          852,090

           426,045

192.1

2020

          429,780

           214,890

96.9

 Average (2001-2020)

           305,717

        152,858

          68.9

Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from Global Forest Watch (2022).

Total greenhouse gas emissions from beef consumption in Bolivia

Table 3 sums up total greenhouse gas emissions from cattle ranching and beef consumption in Bolivia between 2001 and 2020. Emissions from beef consumption averaged 384 kg of CO2eq per kg of beef produced/consumed.

Table 3: Total greenhouse gas emissions from cattle ranching and beef consumption in Bolivia, 2001-2020

 

 

 

 

 

Year

 

Methane emissions from cattle
(million tCO2eq)

 

CO2 emissions from cattle-related deforestation
(million tCO2)

Total greenhouse gas emissions from beef consumption in Bolivia

(million tCO2)

 

Greenhouse gas emissions per kilo of beef consumption

(kg CO2eq/kg)

2001

11.6

31.6

43.3

269

2002

11.9

40.3

52.2

318

2003

12.2

36.9

49.2

292

2004

12.6

45.8

58.4

340

2005

12.9

56.5

69.4

397

2006

13.2

48.8

62.0

310

2007

13.6

42.8

56.4

231

2008

13.9

83.4

97.3

391

2009

14.3

50.8

65.1

322

2010

14.6

101.9

116.5

576

2011

15.0

74.5

89.5

436

2012

15.4

61.7

77.1

363

2013

15.8

40.6

56.4

262

2014

15.7

57.9

73.7

328

2015

16.0

37.5

53.5

220

2016

16.3

106.1

122.4

486

2017

16.6

104.5

121.1

466

2018

17.1

68.1

85.1

318

2019

17.4

192.1

209.6

786

2020

18.1

96.9

115.0

416

 Average

(2001-2020)

 

 

          

384

Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from FAO (2022), Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia (2020), Müller et al. (2014), and Global Forest Watch (2022). 

Bolivia’s beef emissions in perspective

Figure 1 shows that the emissions intensity of beef in Bolivia is almost 4 times higher than the average emissions intensity from beef consumption globally, mainly because Bolivian beef is associated with a lot of deforestation (on average 0.7 hectares of deforestation per ton of beef). 

The figure also shows the average emissions intensity from other food products. These are global averages, but they are probably not very different in Bolivia. Thus, eating 1 kg of beef in Bolivia emits about 39 times more greenhouse gasses than eating 1 kg of chicken, and 767 times more than eating 1 kg of potatoes.

Figure 1: Greenhouse gas emissions per kg of food product (kgCO2eq/kg)

 

 

Source: Authors’ elaboration using data from Ritchie & Roser (2021) and own estimations from Table 3.

In 2020, Bolivians on average consumed about 23 kg of beef per person, up from 10 kg per person in 1961 (FAO, 2022). This means that an average person in Bolivia now emits 8.9 tons of CO2eq per year just from eating beef.

To put this number in perspective, consider that the average per capita emissions in the world from all sources is around 5 t CO2eq/person/year. Or another comparison: Eating just 100 grams of beef in Bolivia corresponds to driving about 213 km in a private car[3] alone.

A vegetarian in Bolivia could go on a Caribbean cruise 5 times every year (including flights to and from Miami) and still not cause as much greenhouse gas emissions as a person who eats 100 grams of beef every day for a year.[4]  

 Recommendations

There are two main options for reducing Bolivia’s extremely high emissions from cattle ranching and beef consumption: 1) Consume less beef, or 2) Produce beef without causing deforestation.

One of the options is in the hands of consumers, and the other is in the hands of producers. Both seem relatively easy changes for individuals and business to implement, but without incentives to do so, it probably won’t happen. Changes in both consumption and production patterns would be greatly facilitated by a public policy that strongly discouraged deforestation.

Unfortunately, public policy seems to go in the opposite direction, with plans to expand Bolivian beef production so as to export our high-emissions beef to other countries as well (Fundación Solon, 2021). Environmentally, this is about the worst possible option for replacing dwindling natural gas export revenues.

A potentially much better option would be to take advantage of the opportunity to receive compensation for reduced deforestation (several thousand dollars per hectare, if well negotiated) and use those funds to put Bolivia on a more sustainable development path, taking advantage of our spectacular natural and cultural resources without destroying them.

 References

Castillo, S. (2017). How much carbon does cruise ship tourism emit?. Griffith Institute for Tourism Insights. https://blogs.griffith.edu.au/institute-for-tourism/how-much-carbon-does-cruise-ship-tourism-emit/

CDTM – The Center for Digital Technology and Management. (2021). Holy Cow! The environmental cost of your food choice. https://www.cdtm.de/2021/07/20/environmental-cost-food-choice/

Cederberg, C., Persson, U. M., Neovius, K., Molander, S., & Clift, R. (2011). Including carbon emissions from deforestation in the carbon footprint of Brazilian beef. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/es103240z

C Level. (n.d.). Flight Carbon Calculator. https://www.clevel.co.uk/flight-carbon-calculator/#s-two

Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia (2020). Tercera Comunicación Nacional de Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia. Ante la Convención Marco de las Naciones Unidas sobre Cambio Climático. Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Agua y Autoridad Plurinacional de la Madre Tierra. https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/NC3%20Bolivia.pdf

FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2022). Data sets, Crops and livestock products. https://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QCL

Fundación Solón, (2021). El cuento chino de la exportación de carne boliviana. https://fundacionsolon.org/2021/10/04/el-cuento-chino-de-la-exportacion-de-carne-boliviana/

Global Forest Watch, (2021). Bolivia, Cambio Forestal. https://www.globalforestwatch.org/dashboards/country/BOL/

IDAE, (n.d.). Consumo y emisiones de CO2. https://coches.idae.es/consumo-de-carburante-y-emisiones

Ministry of Rural Development and Lands (2013). Boletín informativo carne de res. https://siip.produccion.gob.bo/noticias/files/123_0406201472doc_07CARNDE%20DE%20RES.pdf

Müller, R., Pacheco, P., & Montero, J. C. (2014). El contexto de la deforestación y degradación de los bosques en Bolivia: Causas, actores e instituciones (Vol. 100). CIFOR. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/262f/bddd315cf882789e751cd12bf2addda1b25e.pdf

My Climate – Shape our future. (n.d.). Offset your flight emissions!. https://co2.myclimate.org/en/flight_calculators/new

Ritchie, H. (2019). Food production is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/food-ghg-emissions  

Ritchie, H., & Roser, M. (2019).  Meat and Dairy Production. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production

Ritchie, H., & Roser, M. (2019).  Environmental Impacts of Food Production. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food

ITC – International Trade Center (2022). TRADE MAP. https://www.trademap.org/Index.aspx

[1] If we consider both exports and imports of beef, the average amount of meat consumption per person (kg/year), varies from 21.0 to 20.9, an insignificant change.

[2] This not only releases the carbon stored in forest biomass, but also prevents the absorption of new CO₂ emissions. Furthermore, it has impact in the loss of biodiversity, the variation of the hydrological cycle, the local weather, among others.

[3] On average, driving a car for 100 km generates 18.5 kilos of CO2 (IDAE, n.d.). This means that if a person drives 100 km per day for a year, their emissions from the use of their private vehicle would reach 6,738 kg of CO2. In comparison, 100 grams of meat produces 39.3 kg of CO2eq, implying that if a person consumes 100 grams of beef per day, the emission for a year would be equivalent to 14,345 kg of CO2eq from meat consumption alone.

[4] The average emissions from a roundtrip plane trip from Santa Cruz to Miami corresponds to 1.6 tons of CO2 per passenger (C Level, n.d.; My Climate, n.d). On the other hand, the average emissions of a cruise in the Caribbean for a week corresponds to 0.83 tons per person (Castillo, 2017). Making a total of 2,420 kg of CO2. Eating 100 grams of beef per day for a year (14,345 CO2eq) is thus emits 5.9 times more greenhouse gas emissions than the roundtrip flight and cruise.

Check Mauricio Foronda’s interactive analysis of the data

Analysis

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