Climate Cows & Cars

Greenhouse Gases

Most people think of carbon dioxide when discussing global warming and climate change. This is because CO2 is the element that we throw into the air in the highest amounts, but it's not the only one. There are three other elements that contribute to our situation. Each one of these has a different level of impact, and in scientific communities they are all compared against regular CO2 as a baseline. This relationship is called the ‘global warming potential’ which means the amount that an element contributes to global warming compared with carbon dioxide. In this essay we will look at the sources for each of these elements and what steps can be taken to curb the release of the most destructive ones.

Global Warming Potential
CO2 Black Carbon Methane Nitrous Oxide
IPCC # 1 2000x 80x 280x

Source: GHG Management Institute

Carbon Dioxide

Carbon Dioxide (CO2), it's the ruler by which all greenhouse gases are compared. Between 2015-2020 our worldwide transportation spewed rose from 7.5 to 8 billion tons of Carbon Dioxide (that’s more then 2 Mt Everests) in only one year.

Three quarters of that amount is produced by those horseless carriages people seem to be so excited about.
Ironically as the number of cars and their pollution increases, it brings a similar increase in damage to cars and highways.

Within agriculture, the contributions come from three areas: animals breathing out CO2, the clearing of forests to graze animals, and in the gas engines that run farm equipment (link) (link).

Cows breathing, that’s just absurd. What does that have to do with anything??

Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. The damage from animals wouldn't be so enormous, if it wasn't for the incredibly large number of animals that humans have been breeding. With almost 28 billion animals bred for food, they outnumber humans by almost 4 to 1. The amount of carbon exhaled by all those animals adds up to about 4.9 billion tons.

All of this carbon released into the air was once just sitting in the ground, minding it’s own business. But once people burn it and it’s released into the air, that’s when things get really exciting.
On this site we're going to explore all the ways that CO2 is produced, and how we can join up with the millions of other humans to slash those emissions.


When we think of methane, we probably think of farts and silly stuff. But methane is more than just kid jokes. It’s created anytime something organic sits in a place with no oxygen (like underwater). For climate change, methane is a big deal too. The reason is this: even though CO2 has only increased by 40% since the early 1800s, methane has increased by 250%. (link).

For transportation, methane is released mainly in oil drilling and through ‘flaring’ at refineries. (link) Thankfully, only 10% of the methane released is connected to oil (mainly through fracking), while the rest is from natural gas drilling. (link)

From a driver’s perspective, it hasn’t been considered a concern. The question to ask is, who provides those figures? According to some researchers, figures provided to scientists have been much lower than the actual tested amounts (link). So the real impact may be a lot more.

Animals raised for food, on the other hand produce most of the world’s methane. The combination of ‘cow burps’ and animal poop pits results in 9 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year. (link)

There are a large range of sources for methane not only from oil drilling and cows but also from natural gas and rice farmers. (link) The point is that the more that we know about which purchases support the most polluting industries, the easier it becomes to make choices that lower our impact.

Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide, or 'nitro' is usually thought of in terms of race cars. But the hidden side of N2O is that it is a powerful climate changing gas. Amazingly, it's thought to be 280 times as harmful as regular CO2.

So even though it tends to be released in smaller amounts, it still packs a big punch.

Nitrous emissions are mainly caused by animal waste or synthetic fertilizer spread on farms in the open air. (link) Although all plants need nitrogen to grow, plants can be overwhelmed if they get too much.

Because cows and other animals produce so much waste (poop), there’s a strong push to use that on crops.
With so much fertilizer being used, much of the nitrogen on farms ends up turning into pollution. Either it rises into the air, or it gets washed into streams and causes algae blooms. (link)

Around the world, farms using animal waste contribute roughly 3,500 megatons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases so it's a serious issue.

Black Carbon

Just when you thought the great long tale of Earth warming gases was finally complete, there's one more to fill the set (though black carbon isn't really a gas).

Particulate matter, soot, aerosols, there's lots of terms for black carbon. We can simply think of it as billions of tiny bits that get thrown up into the air.

What's incredible about black carbon is that it's estimated to have 2000 times the impact of CO2 (link) (link).

The important side of this story is that the largest amount of the black carbon sent up by humans actually comes not from giant container ships, but from the millions of diesel motor vehicles around the world. (link)

Through a bunch of really complex math, I found that the world’s diesel cars produce an astounding 2,500 megatons of warming impact when compared to carbon dioxide.

But on the other hand, there is good news here. Black carbon only stays up in the air for a few days. This means that getting rid of soot would bring huge results in only a few days rather than waiting years or decades like we'd have to with CO2 or methane. (link)

Embodied Emissions

Even with all this knowledge though, the issue is not as clear cut as it seemed. It's true that the world’s cars and trucks produce over 7,000 megatons of climate changing pollution. But there’s more to the story then that.

A super important piece was something called ‘embodied energy.’ This is the impact caused by manufacturing something- before it arrives on a store shelf. In my research I looked into the whole process, to offer an ‘apples-to-apples’ comparison. It’s difficult to contrast a living being like a cow with an automobile, but bear with me.

The energy used to make cars and trucks, planes and ships includes a long industrial process. Vehicles don’t operate in a vacuum (not even for Elon Musk).

The materials have to be mined from the ground, manufactured, and then delivered to a showroom.

The figures for pollution created are very broad. For my research, I used a study from Beijing which claims 9.2 tons per vehicle. I then applied that to the 90 million vehicles produced per year. This proved that a whopping 830 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent are created simply from building cars and trucks worldwide.

In the next section, we'll see that even owning an electric car will cause thirty times the pollution than traveling by bicycle over a roughly 10 year timespan.

EVs Will Save Us

In the second decade of this century, more and more people have been calling on EVs as the solution to our problems. Unfortunately, as with many techno-fixes they don’t solve much, and will actually cause other problems as well.

Electric cars DO show some value in reducing noise pollution (engine not highway) and local smog.

However when it comes to the pollution involved in building the cars, this ends up being much higher than even for gas vehicles. (link) (link) (link)
On top of the greenhouse gas emissions, there are geo-political impacts from the raw material mining as well. (link) (link). Also present are the pollution issues from road and tire wear. (link)

The reality is that electric cars are not here to protect the planet, they are here to protect the auto industry. (link) (link)

It's simply impossible to ignore the fact that building a 2500kg (5000lb) machine requires many times the resources needed then for efficient options like electric buses.

This brings us to a much better option, and that’s an e-bike. It still uses some electricity, but a great deal less and it has all of the advantages of a regular bike. (link) They work well not just in urban cities, but even in rural towns.

Here is a simple way to think about it. An average EV uses a battery pack with 444 individual cells in it to provide the power needed. Meanwhile an e-bike can provide plenty of power for the same local trips while only needing 30-50 cells. More importantly, ebike batteries can be charged with any standard wall outlet.

It takes up less space, costs less, and still allows users to get exercise, park easily, and interact with their surroundings. (link) Most importantly it has the smallest environmental footprint of any motorized option.

You can see here the ways that many different options for getting around compare in terms of the energy needed for each one.

Roads & Gas

On top of the energy used to build cars, there is also a great deal of pollution and energy from pumping and refining the gas.
In order to figure this out, I had to take the pollution per gram (link) (link) and apply that to the massive amount of gasoline used worldwide. (link)
This, finally, gives us a figure of nearly 3 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent globally.

To give you just a sense of the scale, offshore oil rigs number almost 700 worldwide. The total emissions from just the generators used to power these platforms is 675,000 tonnes of CO2 each year. (link) To have this kind of impact with an e-bike you would have to travel 21 million miles (33 million kms.) (link)

Lastly we will look at the Greenhouse Gases released for road construction. As with the figures for fuel, these calculations were based on several expert studies (link) (link).

When those pollution figures were applied to the global road area, the average emissions for roads came out to roughly 1000 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent released per year. It’s important to keep in mind that this is a very rough estimate based on national road figures.

And this doesn’t even include parking lots, driveways, gas stations, traffic lights and other infrastructure.

Have your eyes glazed over yet? I hope not. Cuz we're just getting to the good stuff.

Food Animals

On the other side of the isle, the embodied energy from raising animals is focused on one area. Converting wild lands into pasture for animals. This is a big deal given what a vast number of animals we make room for.

The transformation rates are hotly debated, and so this figure is more difficult to nail down. (link) (link) Averaging emissions figures from a variety of sources gives a monstrous 3,280 megatons. Adding black carbon to the mix brings the total higher yet to a massive 8,192 megatons of planet roasting gases.


After all the research was done, and my head finished exploding, it finally became clear that a plant-based lifestyle does have a greater positive effect on global warming then a car-free one. This has only been rienforced by other published research. (link) (link)

In fact farmed animals create more climate-changing gases then all of the world’s transportation combined, mainly from cattle. Even when air travel and shipping are included, the total is over 16,000 megatons for all transportation.

Meanwhile, the sheer number of livestock throughout the world creates over 22,000 megatons. (link)

Global GHG Emissions
(In billions of tonnes CO2)
World Total Animals
CO2 37.89 3.39 11.93
CH4 28.88 11.16 1.46
N2O 2.28 6.65 2.76
Soot 83.42 22.65 16.23
Total 83.42 22.65 16.23
Global GHG Emissions
(In billions of tonnes CO2)
World Total Animals Transport
CO2 37.89 3.39 11.93
Methane 28.88 11.16 1.46
Nitrous Oxide 2.28 6.65 2.76
Black Carbon 83.42 22.65 16.23
Total 83.42 22.65 16.23

You can view a more detailed list of solutions to many western lifestyle contributions here. There's also a great book detailing the climate impacts of a great many life choices.

As just one example, California which is the wealthiest economy in North America has large emissions from both agriculture and transport. Transport emissions are larger then agriculture because much of North America's emissions from animals lies in imported products (such as cattle feed). In the case of agriculture, the emissions from breeding animals represent 70% of the damage. For transport, the use of private cars represents 68% of the damage. (link) So it's obvious that eliminating just these two areas would drastically cut the greenhouse gas emissions for this hugely productive state.

After all of this research, does this mean people who eat a vegan diet but drive are now off the hook? Would I go out and buy a car now?

Of course not. As you will see, our global crisis is affecting much more than just temperature and we are going to have to use every tool available in order to reduce the damage. (link)

Shared by Lorna Gold

Changing our relationship with the climate is going to become more uncomfortable the longer we delay. At the risk of sounding too negative, it cannot be ignored that humanity has already passed the point where mild shifts can save us.

As Naomi Klein states, “there are no non-radical options left before us.” (link) We’re not just looking at a changing climate, we’re looking at a changing. . . everything.

For some, this info will be persuasive enough to convince you of how important and positive these changes can be. Others may feel that this is all too overwhelming.

For those in the latter crowd, I welcome you to connect with communities which are already on the path towards greater compassion. Go to a tree planting event, connect with bike commuters, take part in a vegan potluck. Every step that we collectively take to reduce our emissions is, without a doubt, helpful for the well-being of all living beings on our planet. What I hope to impress on you with this essay, is that personal choices based on a single issue are merely one chapter in a larger and more beautiful novel.

If you take in the full breadth of issues affecting the world and consider how interconnected everything is, that will help you develop a broader and richer level of awareness.

You might already be an activist, protester, or social justice warrior. You may believe that where you are right now is good enough. But that’s not the end of the story. While most of us think about being earth-friendly in single issue terms; being plant-based, political campaigning, ditching plastic, etc.

The truth is that there are many choices that we make every day, and all of them have an impact either positive or not.

As you read on, I will share with you other issues surrounding both farmed animals and motorized vehicles beyond their effects on global warming alone. The effects of both are wide-ranging and often subtle. This is why I support you in continuously pushing yourself to adopt more planet-friendly choices.

It is my hope that you will use this essay as a source of inspiration to follow a new and more fulfilling path.

Support cruelty-free products, lower your heat and wear sweaters, or ride a bike to the store for small items. Every step is a higher evolution for our own health, the animals, and all fellow beings.