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Net Zero at home: How to reduce animal carbon footprints (pawprints)

Pets can leave their own carbon pawprint on the planet. Photo credit: Mia Anderson, Unsplash (Photo: Submitted)
Pets can leave their own carbon pawprint on the planet. Photo credit: Mia Anderson, Unsplash (Photo: Submitted)

The Climate Crisis

For decades, we have known the detrimental consequences of burning fossil fuels. Despite being the largest contributor to climate change, they continue to supply approximately 80% of the world's energy.

Climate change is acknowledged internationally through the Paris Climate Agreement, which has the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and attaining climate neutrality by the mid-21st century. Many companies in various sectors have launched groundbreaking initiatives to achieve Carbon Neutral and Net Zero targets by 2030, 2050, and beyond. However, the UK government seems to be adopting a divergent approach. As of 2022, The North Sea Transition Authority began awarding 100 new licences to drill for fossil fuels. (The Guardian) The campaign group Paid to Pollute claims the government handed out £13.6bn to oil and gas companies between 2016 and 2020. (Sky News)

Conversely, renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydro provide an inexhaustible source of clean energy, with costs steadily decreasing. As gas prices continue to surge uncontrollably, the cost of solar-generated electricity plummeted by 85% from 2010 to 2020. (United Nations)

Likewise, embracing renewables is a sound long-term economic decision. In 2020, the IMF reported that $5.9 trillion was allocated to fossil fuel subsidies. If the world were to invest $4 trillion annually in renewables until 2030, we could achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and begin saving $4.2 trillion annually from 2030 onward. (United Nations)

The outlook is undoubtedly alarming, but the energy crisis appears to have a straightforward and evident solution: wholeheartedly embracing renewable energy sources while decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels.

“It can be hard to make a connection between our everyday lives and the survival of polar bears, let alone how we as individuals can help turn the situation around.” (National Geographic)

So, it’s understandable to feel overwhelmed by the world’s energy problems: it’s easy to think ‘what can I do?’. Yet, incremental household and agricultural changes can be impactful in moving towards net zero. .

Understanding Carbon Footprints

“One way to gain a quantifiable understanding of the impacts of our actions, for good and bad, is through what is known as a carbon footprint.”(National Geographic)

Despite the fact that Google searches for 'How can I reduce my carbon footprint?' yield nearly 27 million results, the concept is not universally comprehended as a whole. (National Geographic)

A carbon footprint is “the sum total of all the greenhouse gas emissions that had to take place in order for a product to be produced or for an activity to take place.” (Mike Berners-Lee, Lancaster University, Author of The Carbon Footprint of Everything) (National Geographic)

To comprehend our individual impact on this phenomenon, we need to understand our carbon footprint. A carbon footprint is a measure of the total greenhouse gas emissions, primarily CO2, produced directly or indirectly by an individual, animal organisation, product, or event.

Measuring a carbon footprint means evaluating energy use, transportation, and diet to find ways to reduce emissions. This helps us make informed choices to minimise our impact on the environment and combat climate change.

Our Pawprints

We tend to think about our household carbon footprint, however, we may overlook the efficiency of caring for pets and farm animals.

Farm animals, especially cattle, sheep, and goats, contribute significantly to climate change through methane emissions during digestion. Whilst our cherished pets also leave their own carbon pawprint on the planet. “You’ve felt the environmental burden of your own food choices, now it’s time to worry about your pet’s!” (VICE)

Household pets contribute to climate emissions, primarily through factors like meat-based pet food production, waste disposal in plastic bags, carbon emissions from pet products, and pet-related transportation. Responsible pet ownership and sustainable choices can help reduce this impact, which remains modest compared to transportation and energy emissions.

Amidst the pandemic, 3.2 million UK households welcomed new pets, bringing the nation's total pet-owning households to 17 million. (Zero Smart) In 2023, pet ownership in the US rose to 66% of households, up from 56% in 1988.

Owning pets can have a notable environmental impact, comparable to flying on a private jet. Reducing this impact involves factors such as pet size, how many we own, and diet. Opting for nutritionally balanced, lower-meat-content pet food can lower emissions. To minimise pets' climate impact, we must be mindful of our pet choices and how we feed them. (Peter Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Global Food Security, University of Edinburgh)

According to a 2022 study, providing wet food to a 10kg dog (approximately the size of a standard Dachshund) is linked to an annual CO₂ emission of 6,541kg, equivalent to 98% of the total emissions of an average Brazilian citizen. Conversely, a dry food diet for the same dog would result in emissions totaling 828kg of CO₂. (Pedrinelli, V., Teixeira, F.A., Queiroz, M.R. et al, The Conversation)

An average-sized dog emits 770 kg of CO2e annually, while a larger dog's footprint can reach 2,500 kg per year, equivalent to a ninety-hour drive. On the other hand, a pet cat produces around 310 kg of CO2e per year, akin to a twelve-hour drive. (Zero Smart)

A 2017 study estimated that the collective meat consumption of dogs and cats contributes approximately 64 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to the emissions of 13.6 million cars driving for a year. Remarkably, a large dog's carbon footprint can be twice that of the average family car's annual usage. If our pets were their own nation, they would rank fifth globally in meat consumption, following China, the US, Brazil, and Russia. (Okin G.S, University of California, Los Angeles, CNN)

In a 2020 study across five countries (the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia) involving 3,399 dogs, it was revealed that 33% of owners believed their dogs were at an ideal weight, but in reality, they were overweight or obese. Additionally, only 51% of pet owners accurately recognized their pets' healthy weight status. (Webb. T.L, Hugues du Plessis, Christian. H, Raffan. E, Rohlf. V, White. G.A, Purina)

10 Ways to Reduce Animal Carbon Footprints (Pawprints)

So, here are 10 ways to reduce the carbon footprint of household and farm animals, as recommended by experts from Equine Premium:

Household Pets

1. Avoid Overfeeding: To reduce their carbon footprint, start by feeding your pets less. As 51% of dogs and 44% of cats in the UK are obese, (2019 PFMA's report) harming their health and highlighting the importance of not overfeeding them. “Reducing the quantity of pet food required is a good start…Feeding your pet the appropriate amount would also help to restrict demand for pet food – and also tackle pet obesity.” (Peter Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Global Food Security, University of Edinburgh)

2. Smaller Breeds: This includes choosing pets with smaller environmental footprints (e.g., smaller breeds of dogs), feeding them sustainable diets, and minimising pet product consumption. “By moving towards smaller breeds, we can keep the benefits of pet ownership while reducing the environmental burden. (Peter Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Global Food Security, University of Edinburgh)

3. Carbon Offsetting: Pet owners can offset emissions through reforestation and carbon offset programs. (ESG Tree)

4. Alternative Pet Food: Research sustainable pet foods (e.g. Insect or lab-grown proteins) may cut pet ownership's carbon footprint. “The carbon footprint of beef is nearly four times that of chicken.” (Zero Smart) “Pet food has a massive carbon footprint. Bug-Based proteins can change that.” (AD Week) “In response to concerns over animal meat consumption. Yora uses insects from Dutch farm Protix, combined with British vegetables and oats to create dried dog food pellets…Yora states that the food is “at least as good as chicken” as well as being “easier to digest” for dogs.” (VICE)

However “in a story on lab-grown pet food…the former British Veterinary Association (BVA) senior vice president Gudrun Ravetz told MUNCHIES, “Although we would not recommend it, it is theoretically possible to feed a dog a vegetarian diet, but it is much easier to get it wrong than to get it right, and owners would need to take expert advice to avoid dietary deficiencies and associated disease.” (VICE)

Farm Animals

5. Going Plant-Based: Plant-based and cultured meat can cut meat production's carbon footprint substantially. “Meat grown using tissue engineering techniques, so-called ‘cultured meat’, would generate up to 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventionally produced meat, according to a new study.” (University of Oxford)

6. Gut Health: Looking out animal gut health can improve digestive function and efficiency. For example, Equine Premium’s Gut Balancer contains a palatable probiotic and unique dual source prebiotics, specifically designed for horses and ponies.

7. Livestock Efficiency: Modern livestock farming has enhanced feed conversion and reduced emissions per meat or dairy unit. Precision feeding, improved breeding, enhanced healthcare, and sustainable feed sources can effectively reduce emissions from feed production and manure management, while sustainable energy sources further aid in emission reduction. (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations)

8. Methane Suppressing Additives: “The use of feed additives and other animal feed with methane suppressing properties have been shown to potentially reduce methane emissions, especially from dairy and beef cattle, and is one such measure being explored” (UK Gov)

9. Carbon Farming: “Carbon farming refers to sequestering and storing carbon and/or reducing greenhouse gas emissions at farm level.” (European Parliament) Rotational grazing, agroforestry, and reduced use of synthetic fertilisers, can help sequester carbon in soils and reduce emissions. “Rotational grazing particularly benefits agriculturally improved grasslands. It can provide high-energy forage and reduce fertiliser and herbicide use.” (UK Gov)

10. Manure Management: “Daily spreading of manure will have the greatest reduction in methane production but reducing storage time from months to weeks can also have a significant effect.” (US Environmental Protection Agency)

Overall, moving towards net zero emissions for household pets and farm animals requires a combination of strategies, technology, policies, and agricultural changes, although some emissions may persist.

Farms can move towards net-zero by implementing sustainable practices such as crop rotation, reduced tillage, organic farming, renewable energy adoption, and precision agriculture while also offsetting emissions through afforestation, promoting a sustainable agricultural future through innovation.

This story has been researched by Equine Premium.