Fact check: Fossil fuels are the largest contributor to climate change, not animal agriculture

The claim: Animal agriculture is the biggest contributor to climate change

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions has been a major focus of global efforts to combat climate change, but the primary driver of those harmful emissions continues to be a subject of debate on social media.

A Nov. 20 Instagram post (direct link, archive link) shows text alongside a picture of a bewildered-looking man.

"When people talk about climate change but don't mention how animal agriculture is the biggest contributor," it says. The post garnered more than 500 likes in a week.

But the claim is false.

Climate experts say that the burning of fossil fuels is the largest contributor to global climate change.

Animal agriculture is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, but the extent to which it contributes to global emissions depends on how researchers and studies define different economic sectors, and whether they incorporate things like farming equipment and food exports in the assessment of animal impact.

USA TODAY reached out to the social media users who shared the posts for comment.

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Fossil fuels responsible for majority of greenhouse gas emissions

All living mammals produce greenhouse gases like methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Livestock, and especially ruminant animals like cows and goats, produce methane and nitrous oxide as they digest their food.

But the percentage of global emissions produced by animal agriculture is "much smaller" than the percentage produced by fossil fuels, said Werani Zabula, a spokesperson for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group that assesses the state of global warming.

"Agriculture is about 1/5 of current emissions," Zabula said in an email. "The primary factors in agriculture are deforestation and animal agriculture, so the claim that animal agriculture – which is a subset of the above numbers – is the primary factor for overall is false."

The U.N. panel says the energy sector accounts for 34% of all greenhouse gas emissions, followed by industry at 24% and then agriculture, forestry and land use at 22%.

Christina Cilento, an associate policy fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said most sources list agriculture as the No. 2 contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions – with fossil fuels taking the No. 1 spot.

The specific figures though vary depending on what is all considered part of agriculture. The production and management of livestock manure also produce greenhouse gasses, according to Melissa Sullivan, an Enivronmental Protection Agency spokesperson.

"If you define 'animal agriculture' as including all those things that happen after animals are raised, it’d be a bigger piece of the pie – although perhaps still not enough to get to No. 1," Cilento told USA TODAY in an email.

A report from the European Circular Bioeconomy Policy Initiative says the food system is responsible for one-third of global emissions after accounting for food processing, transport, packaging, retail and waste.

EPA data distributes all the emissions related to energy to various economic sectors. As a result, agriculture appears to be a much larger contributor at 24% of global emissions. Still, energy and heat production are listed as the largest industry contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Fact Check: All mammals, including cattle, produce greenhouse gases

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that animal agriculture is the biggest contributor to climate change. According to scientists, greenhouse gas emissions are the primary cause of climate change, and the burning of fossil fuels is the largest contributor to heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, but experts say that it is the second- or third-largest contributor – not the first.

Our fact-check sources:

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Fossil fuels are No. 1 climate change cause, not animals