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Elon Musk erroneously downplays farming’s climate impact

Elon Musk erroneously downplays farming's climate impact - Featured image

Author(s): Roland LLOYD PARRY / AFP USA

Elon Musk claims farming and other activities on Earth’s surface have “no meaningful impact on climate change.” This is misleading; while burning greenhouse gases is the primary driver of global warming, scientists say food production still accounts for up to a third of carbon emissions worldwide.

“What happens on Earth’s surface (eg farming) has no meaningful impact on climate change,” the owner of Tesla, Twitter and SpaceX said in a June 25, 2023 tweet with more than 6,000 shares.

“Overwhelmingly, the risk of climate change is due to moving billions of tons of carbon from deep underground into the atmosphere. Over time, if we keep doing this, the chemical makeup of our atmosphere will change enough to induce meaningful climate change.”

Screenshot of a tweet from Elon Musk taken June 29, 2023

Musk has tweeted in support of farmers several times in recent months.

His messages include references to protests by Dutch farmers against the ruling coalition’s plans to cut nitrogen emissions by slashing livestock numbers and possibly closing farms. The demonstrations have become a common talking point in US conservative media, with some commentators claiming the policy is part of a globalist plot.

“I’m super pro climate, but we definitely don’t need to put farmers out of work to solve climate change,” Musk tweeted March 4.

While it is true that most human-caused emissions come from burning fossil fuels, experts say Musk’s tweet is misleading.

Climate scientist Michael Mann, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, gave the post a “C-/D+” grade in a reply on Twitter.

Robert Rohde, a lead scientist at the nonprofit research center Berkeley Earth, also responded to Musk’s claim: “Global warming emissions are a diverse problem driven by all sectors of human activity, and are already changing our climate.”

Measuring farming impact

Scientists agree that farming, food production and other land-based activities have a considerable effect on greenhouse gas emissions — though estimates vary depending on whether they include factors such as food waste, non-farming related deforestation and non-food agricultural products, such as cotton.

One study from researchers at the European Commission and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (archived here) found food system pollution represents 34 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

In its 2023 report (archived here), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said 22 percent of emissions in 2019 came from “agriculture, forestry and other land uses.”

Our World in Data, a British nonprofit research group, estimates “around 25 percent to 30 percent of global emissions come from our food systems, and this rises to around one-third when we include all agricultural products” (archived here).

“That is tremendous,” said Edward Davey, partnerships director at the Food and Land Use Coalition, a global advocacy group. “Farming does have a meaningful impact on climate change.”

Researchers say food production accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions – Cole BURSTON / AFP

The IPCC noted in another report (archived here) that managed or natural land also serves as a “carbon sink,” absorbing around one-third of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. However, the panel warned this effect is weakening.

“We are currently, globally, emitting more such gases than the Earth can absorb,” Davey said.

Major emissions from farming (archived here) include CO2 released when forests are cut down or leftover crops are burned, methane from cattle digesting food and nitrous oxide from synthetic fertilizers.

A June 2023 analysis of satellite data from the World Resources Institute (WRI), a nonprofit research body, shows that in 2022 Earth lost an area of carbon-absorbing rainforest larger than Switzerland or the Netherlands (archived here). Most of it was destroyed to make way for cattle and commodity crops.

Tropical forests destroyed that year released 2.7 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, according to the report.

The IPCC said reducing farming emissions is “essential” for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a key target under the Paris Agreement.

“Keeping warming below 1.5C is impossible without changing food production and consumption,” said Richard Waite, a senior researcher specializing in land and food at the WRI, in a tweet commenting on Musk’s post.

Read AFP’s other climate-related fact checks here.

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Originally published here.