Cow burps destroy our planet! – What can we do?

How does our eating behavior affect the global climate?

Meat, Meat, Meat… Meat is one of the most popular dishes in the world. Solely in Germany, each person ate approximately 60 kg of meat per year. (Landwirtschaftliche Rentenbank 2017) But this phenomenon is not limited to Germany. The global meat production increased rapidly over the past 50 years. From 1961 to 2014, this amount rose from 71 million tons up to 317 million tons. (Richie and Roser 2017)

Burping and farting into the disaster

The rising production and the daily consumption of meat leads to a problem. Livestock for meat production is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than most of the other food sources. The emissions arise during the feed production, enteric fermentation, animal waste and changes in land use. (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2017; Noleppa et al. 2012 ) Enteric fermentation? Yes, cows and pigs also puff and belch.

Now the reader will wonder, what do I have to do with the perspiration of cows? He only want to grill his steak on his barbecue and cook a roast meat on Sunday. More than he thinks, because his behavior influences the development of the climate crucial.

All aggregated cow-burps and other greenhouse gases created during the food production process lead to 7,100,000,000 tCO²e/year of global greenhouse gas emissions. (Gerber et al. 2013) Greenhouse gas emissions drive the greenhouse effect, which is leading to global warming. The greenhouse effect is characterized as follows: The UV-rays of the sun heating up the earth. The surface of the earth reflects these heat rays and send them back to the atmosphere. A part of these heat rays will be absorbed, the other part will be reflected by gases inside the atmosphere. They go back to the earth again. This increases the warming. Human activity on our planet leads to a higher amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Consequently, more heat rays are reflected back to the surface. In this case, the human activity is linked to the production and consumption of animal products. The consequence is a further increase in temperature. (Parchmann und Jansen 1996)

How can the problem be solved?

Cows, chickens and pigs will not stop their metabolism and humans are not able to force them to stop this. The easiest answer, to solve the problem, is to reduce the individual meat consumption. The consumption of meat is linked to the offered amount of livestock. If the demand for livestock products declines, the supply will shrink too. The decision to reduce the own consumption of meat, will lead to a smaller individual carbon footprint. A better option than reducing meat consumption, would be the renunciation of meat. However, the perfect way to live, in terms of climate change, is the vegan way of live. The refuse of all animal products. The vegan lifestyle can reduce the per capita production of greenhouse gases by two tons per year. This amount is more or less equal like eight flights in the economy class between London and Berlin. (Nezik 2019)

Unfortunately, not everyone want to give up his meat. That’s okay and understandable, it is his individual decision. Nobody likes to be dictated. However, if everyone behave like this, eating big amounts of meat or taking the car to the supermarket 500 meters away from home , there is no chance to stop climate change.

“Nudging” to a sustainable decision making.

A ban of all products from livestock production is a harsh, but effective way to reduce greenhouse gases. However, there are other options to influence human behavior. “Nudging” is one of them.

The “Nudging” approach, known by the work of Richard Thaler, has two central tenets. First, the behavior of an individual should shifted in self-interested directions. Nevertheless, individuals should have the freedom to make their own decisions. Second, it is intended to help those behaving in self-destructive fashion, without distorting the decisions made by the individuals. In short, “Nudging” can influence people to choose the decision, which is supposed to be the better one. (Downs et al. 2009)

An example for influencing behavior with nudging was a field experiment by van Kleef et al. in twelve primary schools in the Netherlands. The children were free to choose between a healthy food and an unhealthy food. They were influenced by the shape of the offered bread rolls. The “unhealthy” wheat bread had a normal shape. The “healthy” whole grain bread was baked in fun shapes. In the end of the experiment, the researcher examined that the consumption of fun shaped whole grain bread was almost doubled compared to the same bread in normal shape. (van Kleef et al. 2014) The children were successfully nudged to eat more „healthy “.

Maybe “Nudging” can help also to reduce the amount of consumed meat and create a better future. More attractive placement of vegetables and fruits in the supermarket or hints for customers that meatless food is the healthier and more sustainable alternative are measures to push people in certain direction. With this approach, the consumed amount of meat, eggs and milk could decline. There is a chance that the climate change can be influenced by a change in the human nutrition behavior.

Is “Nudging” the cure-all to save the world?

However, nudging is not the cure-all. It is assumed that the paternalist already knows the best decision. Most of the time, the state plays the role of the paternalist. Nonetheless, also the state could be wrong. In this case, the implemented measures wouldn’t lead to the desired result. (Matuschek 2017) Additionally, the reduction of climate killing food could be not enough. The climate change only can stopped by a dramatically decline of greenhouse gases. It needs more than a vegan week in the cantina of a company or the campus cafeteria. So, are bans maybe the better solution in the end?


Downs, Julie S.; Loewenstein, George; Wisdom, Jessica (2009): Strategies for Promoting Healthier Food Choices. In: American Economic Review 99 (2), S. 159–164. DOI: 10.1257/aer.99.2.159.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2017): Livestock solutions for climate change. Hg. v. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. FAO.

Gerber, P. J.; Steinfeld, H.; Henderson, B.; Mottet, A.; Opio, C.; Dijkman, J. et al. (2013): Tackling climate change through livestock: a global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Rome, Italy.

Landwirtschaftliche Rentenbank (2017): Agrar Spezial. Was essen wir morgen? Ernährungstrends und Verbraucherwünsche. Auszug aus dem Geschäftsbericht 2017. Hg. v. Landwirtschaftliche Rentenbank. Landwirtschaftliche Rentenbank. Geschäftsbericht 2017, Frankfurt am Main (Agrar Spezial).

Matuschek, Milosz (2017): Nudge ist Quatsch | NZZ. Neue Zürcher Zeitung AG, Schweiz. Online verfügbar unter

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