The Link Between Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Your Cheeseburger

By Margaret Castro

Climate change tends to evoke images of smokestacks, traffic jams, dry lake beds, melting polar ice caps, and numerous woebegone thoughts. These powerful images strike a chord with the general public; however, they can also feel very distant and overwhelming. In everyday life, these harsh realities do not seem tied into our daily routines. What is often overlooked is that large scale impact is not limited to large scale change; this impact can be brought about by the small, individual choices we all make every single day. The global and individual effort to combat climate change has many varying contributors that can be perplexing. Among these is the overall effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions and, just like every contributor to climate change, each person plays a significant part. 

Greenhouse gas emissions create the greenhouse effect – the trapping of heat from the sun by these gases in the atmosphere, thereby warming the Earth. The main contributors to the greenhouse gas effect are, according to the most current report done by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), carbon dioxide (CO2) which accounts for 80 percent of all greenhouse gases and methane (CH4) which accounts for 10 percent. A major contributor to both carbon dioxide and methane emissions is the agricultural sector which accounts for 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, another EPA statistic. While 10 percent might not seem like a lot, it is important to note that transportation of livestock and factory farming is not included in the overall contribution. 

Cattle in Kneeland. Photo by Margaret Castro

What choices can each person make that can significantly lower their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions? The answer is much simpler than trying your luck in the bike lane on your morning commute. In fact, animal agriculture contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than transport, about 40 percent more, according to the United Nations. The answer, then, is found in your diet: each meal choice you make can have a tremendous impact.

Steaks (a celebratory feast), burgers (a classic at a family barbeque), and lamb gyros (a nice change from the normal American cuisine) all should unfortunately be inserted next to mental images of smokestacks and the like. Although it may seem far fetched, this is horrifically true. There have been many health tips and campaigns for decreasing red meat intake, but this act is not just for the animal loving or the health conscious; it is also for those who would like to lessen their environmental impact. 

So, what’s the link between the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and a cheeseburger? Ruminant livestock, such as cows, sheep and goats, have a rumen which is a fore stomach in their digestive system that contains methanogens. Methanogens are microorganisms that aid in the digestion of cellulose; upon this digestion, the methanogens release methane as a byproduct during a process called enteric fermentation. Ruminant livestock subsequently release methane through belching and flatulence. Although carbon dioxide seems to be the poster child for the climate crisis, methane contributes more to global warming than carbon dioxide. According to the Humane Society of the United States, “…the farm animal sector annually accounts for 37 percent of emissions of methane (CH4), which has more than 20 times the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2 …” Carbon dioxide is not completely absent in the greenhouse gas and ruminant livestock predicament: the consistent transport of livestock both within our country and globally, contributes to carbon dioxide emissions. In addition to methane emissions, the Humane Society of the United States also reports that factory farming contributes to COproduction via chemical fertilizer and energy usage. Every year, the chemical fertilizer used to produce the corn fed to factory farmed animals emits around 41 million metric tons of CO2 and the energy required to maintain a factory farm releases about 90 million metric tons of CO2.

In addition to the Humane Society of the United States, other organizations have taken it upon themselves to delve into the complexities associated with the relationship between our casual lunchtime burger and the environment, among them is the Farm Sanctuary, whose website,, is a plethora of vital information on this subject. According to their website, “Animal agriculture contributes about 66 percent of all agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.” This statistic includes every component of animal agriculture. 

The influx of information in relation to climate change efforts can be just as overwhelming as our mental images, and making a valiant effort to address such a tumultuous issue seems out of the grasp for most people trying to live their day to day lives. It is important to remember, though, that as citizens we not only bring about change with the choices we make, but our choices can also inadvertently help others and the overall cause of lowering greenhouse gas emissions. The effort of being environmentally conscientious can be as simple as reducing the consumption of red meat from ruminant animals. If red meat seems impossible to avoid, choosing local is a good option. Always remember, each small step counts!