Movie Review: There’s a Vast Cowspiracy about Climate Change

, scientific adviser, Climate and Energy | June 10, 2016, 10:31 am EDT
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Movie night at my house last weekend, featuring Cowspiracy. The name says it all. The 2014/2015 movie by that name—“The Film That Environmental Organizations Don’t Want You to See,” according to its website—has uncovered an immense conspiracy between governments and the world’s biggest environmental organizations, to deceive the public about the principal cause of global warming. But the film’s premise is based on badly flawed—and almost unanimously rejected—interpretations of science. Let me explain…

According to Cowspiracy, the major source of global warming pollution isn’t fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas, as the world’s scientists are telling us. No, it’s animal agriculture—not just eating cows, but all other kinds of meat, and eggs and milk and fish too. So the principal solution to global warming isn’t renewable energy. It’s for everyone to become a vegan.

Cows worse than fossil fuels? Not by a long shot

Central to Cowspiracy’s conspiracy theory is the supposed “fact” that a 2009 study found that 51% of all greenhouse gases are produced by animal agriculture.

A good deal of the movie is taken up with interviews with people from environmental organizations, such as the Rainforest Action Network, Oceana, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, who don’t seem to accept this “fact,” and therefore must be part of the conspiracy to cover it up. Greenpeace politely declined, twice, to be interviewed, proving that they’re part of the cowspiracy too.

Since the 51% figure is key to the film’s conspiracy theory, let’s look at the study that it comes from. Ironically, in light of Cowspiracy’s thesis that environmental NGOs are hiding the science, this study proposing this figure on which they rely so heavily was not published in a scientific journal, but in a report by an environmental organization, the Worldwatch Institute. The report’s authors, Jeff Anhang and the late Robert Goodland, were not named in the movie but were described simply as “two advisers from the World Bank.”

Inflating livestock emissions by misinterpreting basic biology

How did Goodland and Anhang come up with 51%, rather than the scientific consensus that livestock are currently responsible for about 15% of global greenhouse gases (which includes direct emissions from the animals as well as emissions from feed production, land use change, and manure)?

The biggest single difference is that Goodland and Anhang also count the carbon dioxide that domesticated animals breathe out—i.e., respiration. You probably remember the basics of this from biology class. The biosphere is basically powered by the photosynthesis done by plants, which take up CO2 molecules from the atmosphere and use the sun’s energy to link those molecules together, making sugars, starches, fats, and (adding in other elements) proteins, DNA, and all the other parts of the living world. In doing so, they release oxygen, which now makes up about 21% of the atmosphere.

The planet’s “heterotrophs”—animals, fungi, and most bacteria and other microbes—can’t photosynthesize, so they need to get their energy from eating or decomposing the molecules produced by photosynthesis. Generally heterotrophs do this by reversing the process of photosynthesis—taking in oxygen, using it to break apart the energy-rich molecules created by the plants, and releasing CO2 back to the atmosphere. This is the process of respiration.

But Anhang and Goodland’s addition of the CO2 produced by livestock to the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, ignores a simple but critical point: plants respire too. They do both of the fundamental processes, not only photosynthesizing but respiring as well.

This respiration is how they get the energy they need to maintain themselves, take up water and nutrients, and carry out all the other chemical reactions needed to live. In the process, they release most of the CO2 that they’ve taken in. And what they don’t is almost all released after they die, by respiration done by decomposers such as fungi and bacteria.

As a result, the CO2 that plants take out of the atmosphere, goes back into the atmosphere, whether or not they are eaten by animals. Thus, livestock (and other animals, including both wild and human ones) don’t add to the amount of CO2 that gets emitted into the atmosphere. This is why scientists reject Goodland and Anhang’s counting of livestock respiration as an additional anthropogenic source of greenhouse gases. It’s not additional—it would happen anyway, so you’re not justified in adding it in.

Changing the impact of methane

There is one important difference when it comes to a relatively small number of animal species. These are the ruminants, which include domesticated animals such as cows, sheep, and goats as well as wild ones such as deer and antelope.

Their digestive system includes a “rumen,” which contains microbes that can break down cellulose, which most animals cannot. Unfortunately, in the process these methanogenic microbes convert some of the carbon into methane (CH4), which is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2. It causes about 25 times as much global warming per molecule as CO2, according to recent scientific consensus.

The release of methane to the atmosphere by ruminants, both directly from both ends of the animal (what is called “enteric fermentation”) and in their manure, is additional. It wouldn’t happen if the ruminants didn’t eat those plants, allowing the methanogenic microbes in their rumens to break it down and use it to produce methane. So scientists most definitely do count ruminant methane in their estimates of global warming pollution, and in fact it’s the largest single contribution to the nearly one-fourth of total emissions that come, directly and indirectly, from global agriculture.

However, Goodland and Anhang didn’t count it in the same way that most scientists do. Rather than weight the contribution of methane as 25 times as large, per molecule, as that of CO2, they use a weighting factor of 72 times, increasing its estimated impact nearly three-fold.

Why do they do this? Instead of using the standard method that estimates the global warming impact of gas molecules over a century, they only count its impact, as well as CO2’s, over a 20-year period. Since methane only lasts in the atmosphere for a decade or two before breaking down, while CO2 stays there for many centuries, counting the effects of both over only the first 20 years increases methane’s relative impact considerably. So, even though there hasn’t been any change in either the amount of CO2 or the amount of methane actually being emitted, the estimate of global warming pollution goes up substantially—with most of the blame going to cattle.

There has been a lot of scientific discussion about the best way to add together the global warming impact of different molecules, and it’s likely to continue.

It depends just how long you think global warming is likely to be an urgent problem. If it’s something that is going to be critical to human society for the rest of the 21st century, that argues for using the standard 100-year period for calculating the effect of greenhouse gases. If you’re pessimistic and think that we won’t be able to stabilize global temperatures for even longer than that, then you can argue for even more than 100 years.

On the other hand, choosing to take the average over only 20 years, as the Worldwatch study did, is tantamount to saying that we only care about ourselves, not our children, our grandchildren, and future generations. If global warming continues beyond the next two decades, that’s somebody else’s problem. I don’t find this an acceptable approach, either scientifically or morally.

These two departures from the scientific consensus—counting the non-additional CO2 respired by livestock, and weighting the methane that ruminant animals emit nearly three times as heavily as most scientists do—account for the biggest differences between the scientific consensus of about 15% of emissions and the 51% figure that Cowspiracy uses.

There are other differences that add smaller amounts—e.g. the estimate of emissions from animal-agriculture-driven deforestation, their use of a much higher count of how many livestock animals there are globally than the U.N. does, their dividing their “animal agriculture” total by a relatively small denominator, which makes the percentage higher, etc. They all have similar scientific weaknesses, and they all have the same kind of impact on the percentage, making it come out much larger (and thus making the importance of fossil fuels and energy smaller) than the scientific consensus says.

How has the scientific community responded to the 2009 Goodland and Anhang study and their 51% figure? We’ve rejected it, nearly unanimously, for the reasons I’ve explained.

Neither the reply to their study in a scientific journal, nor the more recent research papers on the subject, nor the latest reviews of the state of the science, nor the most recent report of the IPCC, written by thousands of scientists from all over the world and accepted as the scientific consensus on climate science—none of these have adopted the 51% figure.

Despite the efforts of both advocates like the makers of Cowspiracy and by the fossil fuel industry (see UCS’ recent report The Climate Deception Dossiers for details), there is strong agreement among scientists as well as among the global public that global warming is happening and humans, principally through the fossil fuels we burn, are the main cause of it.

Cowspiracy ignores this broad consensus, and indeed scientists are practically absent among the many talking heads in the film. It’s telling that although there are lots of statements of supposedly scientific numbers, the people making those statements aren’t identified as scientists, but rather by tags such as “Environmental and Ethics Author,” “Environmental and Food Author,” “Environmental Researcher and Author,” “Greenpeace Alaska Founder,” “Former Whole Foods Market Executive,” “Former Cattle Rancher,” and “Veganic Farmer.”

And who is in cahoots?

I must admit that there’s another, more personal, reason I find it hard to believe that there’s a massive conspiracy among NGOs and scientists to conceal the impact of animal agriculture on the climate.

That’s because my UCS colleagues and I—scientists at an NGO that focuses on climate change—have been writing and speaking extensively about the climate impact of livestock for several years now. And particularly about the impact of cows, especially beef cattle, which have a much heavier global warming hoofprint than other sources of food (including other animal foods).

We’ve been disseminating this scientific information not just in this blog (both recently and years ago) but also in major reports such as Root of the Problem (2011), Grade A Choice? (2012), Climate-Friendly Land Use (2013), as well as in scientific papers and the  2012 book Cooler, Smarter.

I guess you just have to conclude that the makers of Cowspiracy¸ despite its narrator’s claims of extensive research, just didn’t manage to find any of this work. Or maybe it’s just that our rejection of the 51% figure shows that, along with the rest of the scientific community, we’re part of the Cowspiracy too.

Recent research by social scientists has found that climate science denial tends to be associated with other kinds of conspiracy theory as well. As the title of a paper by Stephen Lewandosky and colleagues put it, “NASA faked the moon landing—therefore climate science is a hoax.”

While the subjects are different, what conspiracy theories about President Obama’s birthplace, the 9/11 attacks, contrails from jet planes, vaccination, and climate change have in common is that they tell us that an incredibly large number of people—in government, in the media, and in Cowspiracy’s case, in science and the environmental community as well, have agreed to hide a key piece of information from the public.

Movies like Cowspiracy aren’t believable, not only because of how they twist the science, but also because of what they ask us to believe: that the fossil fuel industry—the ExxonMobils of the world—aren’t the main cause of global warming; that the transition to clean energy isn’t what matters most for our future and our grandchildren’s; and that thousands of scientists have covered up the truth about the most important environmental issue of our time.

Coming up next:  As I mentioned in my last blog post, I’m going to do a short series of reviews on recent books and movies related to beef and climate change. This review of Cowspiracy is the first of the series, and as you can guess, it’s about a movie that is fiercely anti-beef. The next two posts in the series will be about books: In Defense of Beef by Nicolette Hahn Niman, and Cowed by Dennis and Gail Boyer Hayes.

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  • Thank you all for your comments on my post. I appreciated both the substantial numbers replies and their high quality, including detailed discussions of several scientific points with citations to the scientific literature and links to relevant information. I also appreciated that several commentaries – notably those of OnceJolly and SupportSmallFarms – pointed out the inconsistencies in how Goodland and Anhang used the data for animal emissions versus those from other sources such as fossil fuels. This is the case, for example, with respect to their use of a 20-year Global Warming Potential for methane and their updating of figures to account for increases since the original data were collected, and is an additional strong argument against the 51% figure they proposed.

    In many cases, questions that were raised about my post in comments were answered well in other comments, so I’ll limit myself here to just a few additional points.

    Jo Dirix criticizes me, and indeed calls me “intellectually dishonest,” for focusing on Cowspiracy’s climate argument and not also criticizing what it says about land use, nitrogen, water or deforestation. Readers of this blog (see previous posts at and of the UCS web pages on deforestation ( will know that I have written extensively on these issues and linked them to livestock production, particularly beef. I’ll continue to do that in future posts, and some of these issues will figure prominently in my next two posts, the reviews of the books Defending Beef and Cowed. But given the limitations of space – we aim to keep our blog posts to 500-1000 words, and this one had already reached nearly 2000 – I chose to focus on climate, and just make brief mentions and/or give links to my writings on the other issues.

    The main reason for focusing on climate was simply that it is at the heart of Cowspiracy’s conspiracy theory. It is because NGOs do not disseminate the 51% of emissions figure, and indeed that most of the NGO staff who the movie interviewed appeared not even to have heard about it, that the movie concludes that they are covering it up. There are certainly grounds to criticize how Cowspiracy treats the scientific data on other issues besides climate, and various of the comments on my post have explained some of these weaknesses and given links to writings that explain them in more detail. But livestock’s impact on climate change – the claim that, as the 2009 Worldwatch report asserted, “the key actors in climate change are… cows, pigs and chickens,” not fossil fuels — is the basis of the allegation that there is a cowspiracy going on.

    Rick Teague argues that Goodland and Anhang didn’t mean to assert that respiration by animals is contributing to global warming, but merely were using this figure as a proxy for “carbon absorption foregone” by the conversion of natural ecosystems such as forests to cropland and pasture to feed animals. As OnceJolly already pointed out, they did NOT say this in their original article, and only brought it up when that article’s calculations were criticized. Furthermore, if you read the original article it is clear that these are two quite separate parts of their calculation. The first of the four sections of their narrative detailed the “uncounted or overlooked” emissions due to livestock is entitled “Breathing”, and has several paragraphs on the respiration of CO2. The second section is entitled “Land,” and this is the section where they calculate the carbon sequestration that is “foregone” by using land to graze livestock and raise feed for them, rather than allowing it to regenerate to forests.

    The fact that these are two separate components of their calculation — not one used as a proxy for the other — is also clear from the table in which they total up their additions to the standard calculations of emissions from livestock. Item 1 is “Overlooked respiration by livestock”, which they estimate at 8,769 million tons of CO2eq, and item 2 is “Overlooked land use,” estimated at ≥2,672 million tons.

    This should be sufficient to rebut Rick Teague’s argument, but there are two additional points that can be added. First: Teague presents no evidence that livestock respiration can be used as reasonable estimate of the carbon sequestration lost by converting ecosystems to agriculture for animals, and of course neither do Goodland and Anhang. And indeed there is evidence against this contention: Krausman et al.’s calculations (PNAS 110: 10324-10329, 2013; see ) show that globally, Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production due to land change (HANPPluc, the technical term for this “foregone sequestration”) stayed essentially the same from 1910 to 2005, a century during which global livestock numbers increased dramatically (see Figure 1 of Bouwman et al., PNAS 110: 20882-20887, 2013; see ).

    Second, while the carbon sequestration that would result from converting land back to forest is important to estimate – it gives us an indication of the potential to counteract global warming by natural reforestation – it is not an emission. Rather, it is an estimate of (potential) sequestration, and so on the other side of the climate ledger. Thus there is no justification for adding it to emissions from ruminants, manure, synthetic fertilizer and other sources of greenhouse gases due to livestock.

    Finally, a reply to the argument that Dr. Goodland couldn’t have made a scientific error on respiration because he was an eminent scientist, praised by Rajendra Pachauri of the IPCC. I share Teague’s admiration for Goodland’s accomplishments — over his long career at the World Bank he fought long and hard, and with some success, to get the Bank to take environmental issues seriously – but this does not mean that he couldn’t make a mistake. Scientists, even the best, are not infallible. A famous example is Linus Pauling, twice winner of the Nobel Prize, who proposed an erroneous model of the DNA molecule (he thought it was a triple helix; it’s actually double), due to simple mistakes in chemistry.

    One of the wonderful things about science is that we judge arguments by the evidence for and against them, not by the fame of the person who proposes them (or the person who praises the person who proposes them). I am pleased that most of the replies to my post focused on the science, not on who made the argument, and hope that this will continue.

    • Paul Mahony

      Doug, in your comment you have not addressed material from my linked article. You may have decided not to, or simply overlooked it, but I post a large extract here in case anyone’s interested (which they may not be).


      [Doug Boucher] suggests that, according to scientific “consensus” (a word he uses seven times), livestock are “currently” responsible for “about 15%” of global emissions. The paper he cites for that figure actually uses a range of 8% to 18%. [4] Its references, in turn, are from five papers published from 2005 to 2013, so they are hardly current, particularly when their reference periods are even earlier. The 2013 paper is from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which used a figure of 14.5%. [5]

      Within the figure of 15%, Boucher’s main concern is the use by Goodland and Anhang of a 20-year time horizon for estimating the warming impact of the various greenhouse gases. Boucher’s case against that approach is poorly argued. Let’s look at his key points.

      Firstly, like many others, he claims methane’s global warming potential (GWP) (although not using that term) is 25 when measured over 20 years,and 72 over 100 years. Despite claiming that those figures are based on
      “recent scientific consensus” (there’s that word again), his figures are out of date.

      The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) used a 100-year GWP of 25 in 2007 but increased it to 34 (with climate-carbon feedbacks) and 28 (without those feedbacks) in its 2013 Fifth Assessment Report. It also increased the figure for 20 years from 72 to 86 (with climate-carbon feedbacks) and 84 (without them). [6]

      I have argued elsewhere that a 20-year GWP for methane may be more valid than the 100-year figure used by most reporting bodies. That’s because methane, a critical factor in livestock’s climate change impacts, generally breaks down in the atmosphere to a significant extent within around 12 years. Accordingly, a 100-year GWP (which shows the average impact over a period of 100 years) greatly understates its shorter term impact.

      Boucher fails to recognise that the issue is critical when considering the impact of climate change tipping points, with
      potentially catastrophic and irreversible consequences due to the prospect of runaway climate change over which (as the term implies) humanity will have virtually no control.

      In applying the 20-year (or shorter) time horizon, Goodland, Anhang, and others (including me) are reflecting profound concern for “our children, our grandchildren, and future generations”, despite Boucher asserting that we are selfishly ignoring them.

      Secondly, Boucher says that those who apply a 20-year time horizon do not count methane’s impact “in the same way that most scientists do”. In other words, they are not using “the standard method”.

      He seems to have overlooked the fact that the IPCC, in its 2013 Fifth Assessment Report, acknowledged that the 100-year figure is not always appropriate, when it stated:

      “There is no scientific argument for selecting 100 years compared with other choices. The choice of time horizon is a value judgement because it depends on the relative weight assigned to effects at different times.” [7]

      Does Boucher consider the IPCC to be beyond the scope of his much-loved scientific “consensus”?

      Environmental Organisations:

      Boucher claims that the creators of Cowspiracy gave the impression that various environmental groups are part of a conspiracy because they don’t accept that livestock are responsible for 51% of global emissions. However, the issues discussed in the movie with those organisations extended well beyond that one. For example, when the interviewer questioned the sustainability of industrial scale fishing with Geoff Shester of Oceana (26:50), and rainforest destruction with Lindsey Allen of the Rainforest Action Network (31:30), the 51% figure was not mentioned.

      Boucher also claims that Greenpeace politely declined to be interviewed. But why wouldn’t they be willing to discuss the issue, particularly when one of their “core values” is to “promote open, informed debate about society’s environmental choices”? [8]

      Here’s an extract of the movie’s interview with Emily Meredith, spokesperson for Animal Agriculture Alliance (57:50), which seems to raise serious questions in relation to Greenpeace:

      Question: “Does the meat and dairy industry ever support or donate to environmental non-profits?”

      Emily Meredith (looking across to President and CEO, Kay Smith, who is out of sight): “I don’t know that I would want to comment on that.”

      Voice of Kay Smith: “I don’t know that we would know what they donate to or don’t donate to.”

      Question: “Does the meat and dairy industry ever support or donate to, say, Greenpeace?”

      Emily Meredith (laughing nervously and looking across to Kay Smith): “Again, I don’t know that I would feel comfortable . . .”


      As mentioned in the conclusion, I argue that we will not overcome climate change unless we deal with both fossil fuels and animal agriculture.

      • Support Small Farms

        Greenpeace wrote a response here: For the film not to note Greenpeace’s role in getting rates of deforestation drastically reduced via its soy and beef moratoriums was purposely misleading.The film actually used rates from pre-2004 when rates were 80% higher on an annual basis than they are today. And in response to the question about whether or not the meat or dairy industry support Greenpeace, the answer is no. Making unsupported insinuations, doesn’t make any form of connection or prove any “conspiracy”. This review further points out how ridiculous the whole conspiracy angle was.

        For many of the NGO’s, the film makers didn’t contact the correct people within these NGO’s. Here’s a link to a podcast of a debate between Kip from Cowspiracy and Nicolette Hahn Niman where this is mentioned by one of the people within one of those NGO’s not contacted. Additionally in this podcast several of these NGO’s and others got to finally confront Kip about the film. Kip not only lied to people what the film was about, he heavily edited the interviews to fit his agenda.

      • Support Small Farms

        As for the 20 year or 100 year time frame, whichever way is chosen, all sectors have to use the same frame in any analysis. You can’t use higher equivalencies for just one sector and use lower equivalences fro all other sources of CH4 emissions. Stephen Walsh,(the vice chair of the UK Vegan Society , and science adviser to the International Vegetarian Society) discussed this issue at length in his critique here:

        “…The authors appear to have rescaled the impact of methane from animal farming to reflect the higher impact of methane on the shorter time horizon, but not rescaled the impact of methane from other sources. This does not need any complicated “recalibration” as there are clear and generally accepted figures for amount of methane from other sources….”

        Walsh also noted<

        "….Methane therefore has most of its impact over a shorter time period while atmospheric carbon in the form CO2 has a smaller effect but one that persists over a longer time. This is not, however, a matter of a mistake by the FAO. Rather, it is a matter of deciding the timescale over which the impact of decisions is most important. If we believe that an irreversible runaway global warming effect will occur soon if global warming is not reduced quickly then the shorter time-scale is critical. If we believe that global warming will progress in a steady way without such a catastrophic discontinuity then a longer perspective is more appropriate. The appropriate time-frame is a matter for scientific debate and not as simple as one time frame being objectively correct and the other being wrong…."


        Note too in this critique by a long time vegan, Walsh refers to World Watch's report as "very poor science."

      • Paul Mahony

        In my Nov 2014 article “Livestock and climate: Do percentages matter?” (, I noted in relation to Goodland & Anhang: “A possible cause for concern in this case is that the authors did not adopt the same approach for non-livestock methane emissions.”

        I believe it is likely (using Walsh’s phrases) that “an irreversible runaway global warming effect will occur soon if global warming is not reduced quickly” and, therefore, that “the shorter time-scale is critical”.

        If interested, some of my concerns regarding climate change in general (rather than animal agriculture’s impact in isolation) are outlined in my March 2015 article “On the edge of a climate change precipice” (, which incorporated an article from Feb 2012, referring to material from Dr James Hansen and others. My article “The climate crisis requires emergency action” ( is also relevant. (I’m not suggesting you or anyone else will be interested in reading the articles.)

        Image: M. Todesco, Cryospheric Processes Laboratory, City College New York City, Used with permission.

  • Paul Mahony

    My thoughts: “Concerns over a concerned scientist’s comments”

  • Well Doug, isn’t all this old news by now? We knew this for about 20 years or so. 8 years ago I wrote this: Then your claim that “the CO2 that plants take out of the atmosphere, goes back into the atmosphere” isn’t quite a correct one. I urge you to read the comment section under the following article in its entirety to not miss the important bits: Furthermore, aren’t they adding the fact that the entire meat processing chain is making up those 51%? Meat is heavier to transport than plantbased food, to name one important factor, harder to process (it’s thick, tough, has bones etc.), harder to digest (even our bodies need more energy thus consumption of resources for that).

  • Rick Teague

    Mr. Boucher attacks Goodland and Anhang’s use of respiration GHGs by using a classic straw man argument (see above). What Goodland and Anhang actually argued was that

    “For those who consider counting respiration GHGs overly controversial, they can consider respiration GHGs as a proxy for carbon absorption foregone in land set aside for livestock and feed production. Part of why our article counted respiration GHGs was that it enabled us to reference a published calculation, whereas we found no published calculation for carbon absorption foregone in land cleared for livestock and feed production.”

    There is no misinterpretation of basic biology here. Goodland and Anhang were using respiration of GHGs to model carbon absorption foregone for which there was no referenced calculation.


    • OnceJolly

      In their original article, Goodland and Anhang claim “The FAO asserts that livestock respiration is not listed as a recognized source of GHGs under the Kyoto Protocol, although in fact the Protocol does list CO2 with no exception, and “other” is included as a catchall category.” However, reporting under the Kyoto Protocol acknowledges the carbon cycle that Doug describes, which also involves subtracting CO2 drawn from the atmosphere from photosynthesis of pastures and cropland, which offsets respiration.

      It’s only after they are asked how the IPCC and other bodies (Goodland and Anhang begin with GHG inventory estimates for the year 2000 from the World Resource Institute) missed 22 GTon of emissions, that Goodland and Anhang retreat (in your linked article), stating: “If respired GHGs are counted as a proxy for foregone carbon absorption, then most of the 22 billion tons of emissions that we claim were previously not counted can be understood as a potential carbon sink rather than an actual carbon source.” At this point, it becomes clear that whatever it is that they are measuring aren’t actually emissions (realized sequestration allowing croplands to revert to natural vegetation is treated as a negative emission in GHG inventories constructed using global standards, while realized lost sequestration is treated as positive emissions – potential sinks sequestration largely represent the possibility of reversing past emissions arising from the original conversion of the land).

      The FAO was doing an attribution of livestock’s share of actual net emissions in 2000, computing using 100 year GWPs. I doubt you can provide a coherent explanation of what Goodland and Anhang are doing, given their use of multiple GWPs, (selective) inclusion of estimates of potential sinks (the same will be true of cropland used to feed people), or selective updating for subsequent out-of-period (livestock tonnage increase of 12 percent between 2002 and 2009, without adjusting for fossil fuel increases over the same period). They also confuse estimates of live animals at a point in time with the total number alive in a year.

      • Rick Teague

        The below is from the original 2009 World Watch article.

        “The FAO counts emissions attributable to changes in land use due to the introduction of livestock, but only the relatively small amount of GHGs from changes each year. Strangely, it does not count the much larger amount of annual GHG reductions from photosynthesis that are foregone by using 26 percent of land worldwide for grazing livestock and 33 percent of arable land for growing feed, rather than allowing it to regenerate forest. By itself, leaving a significant amount of tropical land used for grazing livestock and growing feed to regenerate as forest could potentially mitigate as much as half (or even more) of all anthropogenic GHGs. A key reason why this is not happening is that reclaiming land used for grazing livestock and growing feed is not yet a priority; on the contrary, feed production and grazing have been fast expanding into forest.”

        Goodland and Anhang don’t have a number to use for this carbon absorption foregone so they use respiration of livestock as a proxy. I don’t think it really matters which article they talk about that in as long as that proxy/model is reasonable and leads to a better analysis. If you want to argue that using respiration of livestock as a proxy/model is not accurate for carbon absorption foregone then have at it but otherwise I don’t see why which particular article it is mentioned in is relevant. The UN FAO clearly missed this and Goodland and Anhang were trying to approximate it with something they had a referenced calculation for.

        Just to put this into a little better perspective also. if Goodland and Anhang had made an error of this magnitude do you really think that Rajendra Pachauri, the former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change would have given the long and glowing eulogy of Robert Goodland that he gave ? Search on YouTube for “Pachauri Goodland” and it will come up.

      • OnceJolly

        If you want to resort to appeals to authority, Goodland and Anhang were ignored in favor of Stehfest et al. (2009) in the IPCC’s 5AR report on mitigation in the section on the role of diet. [1] But the point is simply that G&A made an incorrect statement about whats included under Kyoto, and then follow-up and admit that their proxy isn’t measuring actual emissions. So if the FAO figures can be interpreted as the percentage of actual net emissions due to human activities resulting from livestock in 2000 (using 100 year GWPs to convert CH4 and N20 to CO2e), the Goodland and Anhang doesn’t have the same interpretation. What then is the interpretation?


      • Rick Teague

        At the end of the day though don’t carbon emissions and the loss of carbon sequestration effect GHG emissions the same way ? Where did Goodland and Anhang misquote the Kyoto Protocol ? We don’t have a hundred years to solve this issue. The climate cliff is approaching by most accounts in the next few years. The IPCC is fine with using 20 year GWPs so why would anyone ever use that 100 year GWP number ? As long as you are defining your GWP period you should use the more relevant time frame which would certainly be the 20 year time frame.

      • OnceJolly

        If you check IPCC publications (like the report linked previously), you’ll find that the 100 year GWPs are regularly used, and are also the official conversion factors under Kyoto [1]. G&A continue to use the 100-year GWP for nitrous oxide and for methane from the 63 percent of man-made sources other than livestock in their analysis. And they themselves note that foregone potential sequestration doesn’t involve any actual emissions. You can also read Doug Boucher’s recent comment, which directly addresses some of your previous comments.

        [1] Also see box 3.2 on page 87 of the AR5 Synthesis Report:

      • Rick Teague

        Foregone potential by definition is not actual it’s foregone. The point is of course that foregone potential needs to be accounted for one way or another.

      • OnceJolly

        Since most of the foregone potential was created by past land use change, it was already accounted for as emissions in past years when the land was originally cleared. Goodland and Anhang’s addition of foregone omissions to actual emissions is incoherent. There are better ways of doing this…see for example Stehfest et al. (2009), which consists dietary change over various scenarios.

  • Rick Teague

    Do you really think that the former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) would give a long glowing eulogy to Robert Goodland if in one of Goodland’s most well known works he had “misinterpreted basic biology” as Mr. Boucher claims ?

    Mr. Boucher attacks Goodland and Anhang’s use of respiration GHGs by using a classic straw man argument (see above). What Goodland and Anhang actually argued was that

    “For those who consider counting respiration GHGs overly controversial, they can consider respiration GHGs as a proxy for carbon absorption foregone in land set aside for livestock and feed production. Part of why our article counted respiration GHGs was that it enabled us to reference a published calculation, whereas we found no published calculation for carbon absorption foregone in land cleared for livestock and feed production.”

    There is no misinterpretation of basic biology here. Goodland and Anhang were using respiration of GHGs to model carbon absorption foregone for which there was no referenced calculation.


  • Flavia

    Starting by saying that although I appreciated Cowspiracy highlighting the huge (because it is huge) impact that animal agricolture has on climate change, I didn’t like the way the documentary is developed and the fact that it focuses mainly on putting ENGOs in a bad light, so that in a “conspirative burst” I almost thought it was the one paid by fossil fuels industry.

    However, reading the first part of this article I was a bit confused in this part:
    “Thus, livestock (and other animals, including both wild and human ones) don’t add to the amount of CO2 that gets emitted into the atmosphere. This is why scientists reject Goodland and Anhang’s counting of livestock respiration as an additional anthropogenic source of greenhouse gases. It’s not additional—it would happen anyway, so you’re not justified in adding it in”.
    The amount of animals living on this planet would drastically decrease if there were no meat industry, we humans let animals be born and raised exactly for the purpose of eating them. If humans as a whole stop eating meat, it would reduce the number of animals breathing. How can you write that it is not additional? Did I miss something in the text?

    This is a real question, not retorical, so anyone understanding it and willing to explain me is welcome to reply, thanks!

    • Wayne fowler

      Because animals get their carbon from plants. Plants which took the carbon out of the atmosphere. For every carbon atom an animal breathes out a plant has to have taken it out of the atmosphere by photosynthesis. So it’s balanced. We can argue about what is the best use of the plant food that is eaten by animals but regardless, many animals or few, the CO2 in and CO2 out equation remains balanced….
      ….except for the methane which is discussed elsewhere.

      • Flavia

        Thank you Wayne. But according to this, if there were less animals to feed, then the plants would be less as well. And even as you say that would get balanced in terms of carbon in and out, most (if not all) the animals in the meat industry are fed by soia and other feed which have been cultivated for the purpose, causing deforestation and other social and environmental issues. I still don’t see how it can be equal…

      • OnceJolly

        Deforestation is accounted for as land use change in GHG inventories. One of the innovations of the FAO’s “Livestock’s Long Shadow” was to attribute a portion of land use change in 2000 to the livestock sector. The following graphic summarizes the 41,755 million tons of emissions that that Goodland and Anhang report, broken down according to the categories used by the World Resources Institute:

  • Timo Kugler

    Hi Doug,

    Great read that delivered some much wanted perspective to the claims made in the movie. I agree with the movie in regards to the baseline thesis that excessive livestock agriculture – like most excessive things in live – creates problems. The kind of problems that corporations who operate in this field don’t want to talk about. Not much conspiracy there.
    The idea that leading environmental agencies are wholeheartedly involved in the biggest cover-up since the fake moon landing seems borderline insane. Agreed.
    It’s interesting to see how statistic manipulation was used to inflate the point the author wanted to make about the emission that can/should be attributed to livestock farming – thanks for shining some light on that. This sort of distortion of the truth – not to call it a lie – is unfortunately widely adopted by lobbyist on both sides of any cultural conversation. If there is a true conspiracy at work here that keeps the public in the dark about the reality of a lot of things it’s the absence of the scientific voice in most of these discussions. Not that the scientific society would shy away from participating – on the contrary – but validated scientific methods and findings often don’t come in bite size pieces that are easy to digest or would help to paint the monochromatic scenario lobbyist need to swing consensus. The tendency to understand the world in black and white terms is concerning and a step backwards on our evolutionary journey. Unfortunately lobbyists, leading media and politicians alike keep feeding us information in line with this world view. Good & Evil, Big & Small, New & Old, This & That Yes & No. 1s & 0s. Binary code for a modern society. And not many people find the time or interest anymore to investigate all the shades of grey in between. I guess this is what happens when “The Real Housewifes of Whereever” become the talking point at the dinner table. So there’s my uninvited rant… now to my question:

    What concerned me at least as much as the gas emission argument were the points of exorbitant water use and terra-forming with long-term impact. In your eyes: Are these claims also built on manipulated, inflated facts? Or is the concern about the world’s drinking water supply (and the cost of 1L of water) as real as it feels?

  • t.conway1

    Doug, I very much appreciate your work to bring greater attention to the global catastrophe of human-caused climate change, but I think your critique of Robert Goodland (d.2014) and Jeff Anhang is off-base here on a few points. Because of an incredibly busy schedule right now, I’ll simply focus on the most egregious point: namely, your insinuation that the authors somehow have a stunted scientific or moral approach in their using the 20-year time-frame for methane, not the 100-year span. (You wrote: “I don’t find this an acceptable approach, either scientifically or morally.”)

    But you’ve completely misunderstood why Goodland & Anhang adopted this shorter frame; here is what their original article (“Livestock and Climate Change…”) actually stated:

    “The new widely accepted figure for the GWP of methane is 25 using a 100-year timeframe— but it is 72 using a 20-year timeframe, which is more appropriate because of both the large effect that methane reductions can have within 20 years and the serious climate disruption expected within 20 years if no significant reduction of GHGs is achieved. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change supports using a 20-year timeframe for methane.”

    Reinforcement on this point of a heavier weighting for methane via the 20-year time-scale comes from methane expert Robert Howarth of Cornell Univ., a staunch critic primarily of methane emissions by the natural gas industry; he stated in his 2014 paper (“A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas,” Energy Science &
    Engineering), “The 20-year time period is appropriate because of the urgent need to reduce methane emissions over the coming 15–35 years.”

    The obvious point here is that these authors are suggesting that if there are to be ANY FUTURE GENERATIONS of humans and most other animals on this planet in 40, 70 or 100 years, then the catastrophic problems of exorbitant methane and CO2 emissions MUST BE SOLVED ASAP, certainly within the next 20 years. And so a 20-year time-frame is not just entirely appropriate but actually crucial in assessing the problem.

    My other points that i don’t have the time to outline here would start with the plain fact that livestock populations have swelled significantly since the time of the UNFAO and Worldwatch reports (obviously adding far more CO2 and methane emissions), due to the foolish and cruel trend of the newly affluent in China and India consuming far more meat and dairy (and yes, obviously cruel when considering the export of USA-style intensive meat-, poultry- and dairy-operations to places like China and India, wherein animals are callously treated as “units of production,” not as fellow sentient beings).

    I know it “offends” UCS’ large donor base to hold people accountable for their food choices, but enough’s enough. There’s a whole slate of reasons, starting with serious moral issues, why more and more humans should be considering the vegan option.

    • OnceJolly

      So why didn’t Goodland and Anhang adjust methane sources from other sources using the 20 year GWP as well? As to population growth, Livestock’s Long Shadow reports a standing population of 21.7 billion animals for the year 2002. Using the same FAO statistics, the World Watch Institute reports a figure of 26.7 billion for the year 2010. [1] Fossil fuel consumption grew by a similar percentage over the same period. The conflicting (and larger) figures that Goodland and Anhang report (50 and 56 billion) are based on a different concept (total number of animals slaughtered) which differs from standing populations (the number of animals alive at a point in time) due largely to the brief lives of broiler hens (which aren’t a major source of methane).


      • t.conway1

        As i understand the point about methane, they didn’t adjust for other sources, e.g., paddy rice farming, because that is not a very “adjustable” commodity –i.e., humans are going to consume a certain amount of rice each year because it is such a basic, inexpensive and wholesome foodsource (e.g., the Nepali porters, ascertained to be the strongest load lifters in the world, subsist on a diet of primarily rice). But the number of livestock is a now “woefully, artificially inflated” number (e.g., humans today are, in general, eating far more meat than their great-grandparents), a number that could be greatly diminished if massive numbers of humans simply chose to “eat lower on the food chain,” i.e., plants instead of animals.

        As for the number of livestock animals, in Goodland & Anhang’s follow-on piece for Worldwatch magazine in March/April 2010, they note: “We discovered after [Oct 2009] publication that the FAO’s own statistical division reported 56 billion livestock worldwide in 2007.”

        So that number — 56 bn — is not a number that Goodland & Anhang just pulled out of their hats.

      • OnceJolly

        I’ve documented the reasons they gave for not adjusting the remaining emissions, and why I think they’re unjustified. See my blog entry (link in response to Support Small Farms). What they’ve done is exactly the kind of inconsistent accounting tactics that one would use to produce an inflated figure.

        I don’t deny that the figure of 56 billion comes from the FAO, but as I note, it’s not an estimate of standing population, which is what the earlier study by the FAO is reported. The FAO keeps statistics for both series (standing population, animals slaughtered) Comparing them is inappropriate and misleading. Furthermore, according to IPCC greenhouse gas accounting guidelines, the standing population series is the correct one to use (again, see my blog entry),

  • Jo Dirix

    Why only mention fossil fuels? Why not the inefficiency of livestock for nutritional purposes? Why not discuss the nitrogen cycle disruption (Steffen et al. 2015 Science), biodiversity loss (& rainforest destruction) (Erb et al. 2016 Nature Communications), the amount of global agricultural land taken up by livestock (it’s 75%, Foley et. 2011 Nature)? Why focus solely on greenhouse gases, when Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret discusses far more effects of the livestock industry? Yes, the 50% GHG is derived from a much contested study, but to discredit the documentary because it cites one study (among many) that isn’t credible, is intellectually dishonest.

    • Support Small Farms

      Cattle in the Amazon are approximately 4% of global cattle inventory. The film itself used deforestation rates from before 2004. Since that date, rates of deforestation in Brazil have dropped 80% on an annual basis. Cattle in the Amazon is also used as a way to maintain land claims, so it is in many more ways a symptom of land speculation and government corruption rather than the underlying cause of deforestation.Conversion of what was cattle pasture to crop land including for ethanol has also pushed ranching into the Amazon, so needless to say that the pseudo documentary provided a very grossly oversimplified portrayal of this issue. Ironically, the film is based on Oppenlander’s book, and Oppenlander uses palm oil in his vegan food company’s baked goods. The rates of deforestation in Indonesia now exceed those in Brazil.

      The vast majority of most of the rest of the globe’s cattle inventory is raised on land not suitable for crops …primarily grasslands. (Grasslands per the IPCC btw sequester more carbon than temperate forests and as much as tropical forests – see ) So there is no greater efficiency for food production on that agricultural land. Ruminants take grasses (cellulose) that humans can’t digest (due to our short colons) and convert them to complete proteins that are also rich in minerals and essential fatty acids. Those grasslands, when managed properly, as the Audubon Society will attest, preserve biodiversity.

      When those grasslands are torn up for man made agro-ecosystems (cropland) is where biodiversity is lost Where these marginal grasslands are converted to agro-ecosystems, that’s where you lose soil carbon, lose methane sinks and require more diverted blue water for crops that aren’t anywhere as near nutrient dense. When these lands are also industrially farmed, the synthetic inputs including nitrogen also leach into waterways causing hypoxia. The common misconception is that all of this industrial farming is mainly for animal feed. Cowspiracy furthers this misconception. The reality is that the feed is a co-product of the seed oil/biofuel/ ethanol industries. Feed started as a by-product. Now there are a myriad of other by-products from industrial farming. Note too that monocrops of palm oil trees also require huge inputs of nitrogen fertilizers to increase yields. The consequences of these inputs are also now just being realized.

      Regardless, here are just a few other good reviews pointing out the many other fallacies presented in this pseudo documentary:

      Needless to say, citing World Watch 2009 wasn’t the film’s only fault.


  • ResearchAlways

    Perhaps it could be added to this important articel that Cowspiracy also is inccorect in its water calculations. They do not apply the virtual water concept correctly and misinterpret it as an environmental indicator which it is not. Im not a scientist. I would be very glad if someone points this out correctly.

  • Ger Groeneveld

    Cows do mainly produce milk (and human produce related products like yogurt, butter and cheese) made from grass humans can not digest. Producing milk through cows might not be the most efficient process, producing human digestible foods directly from grass will be just a few percent points better -if ever-.
    If there is a problem, it’s not related to the methane emitted by cows but to the N2O, NH3, etc. emissions caused by artificial fertilizers to grow more grass (or other vegetables) than the soil can provide. Grass can grow just about everywhere with temperatures above a 10~12 Celsius, survive cold temperatures well below freezing point of water. Dried grass can survive a period of a 6 months and serve as food for the same cows, if necessary to overcome dry/wet or cold periods. Most vegetable don’t get any further than a 3 to 4 weeks and have to be stored in cool places (consuming energy.
    Food, grass, not used or at end of shelf-live can be processed into a solid fuel in minutes, just like nature did in millions of year into coal and without the contaminants -like mercury- found in coal.

    Imagine a cow farm where the cows are in a barn during a 6 months a year and during nighttime (not very fond of locking up animals in a barn continuously) where a digestion system is taking care of 75% (25% ends up on the land) of the manure and all air(for burning methane gas) is from the barn (containing whatever methane and ammonia) delivering electrical power/heat for processing/cooling/transporting the milk products. Methane problem gone.
    Digestate, what’s left of the manure, is an excellent fertilizer. It’s lacking NH4+ but that can be supplied with bio-char which will release fertilizers in a slow way, preventing release of ammonia, N2O. N2O problem reduced significantly.

    Cow life in dairy farms is something to be improved upon. Productivity of dairy cows is quite low: ; with such low productivity there is enough meat available from non-productive cows. I didn’t run figures but remember the ‘meat mountains’, ‘milk lakes’ and ‘butter hills’ in the EU that for sure there is enough of all.

  • Eric the Fed

    Oppenheimer has a prestigious name, but it’s our loss that he uses it to misrepresent his credentials and distort science to further his own self interest. This trend is like a plague.

    • FaunaAndFlora

      The dentist who is featured in “Cowspiracy” is named Oppenlander.

  • Support Small Farms

    In reference to the comment “…indeed scientists are practically absent among the many talking heads in the film…” The film is mainly based on the book “Comfortably Unaware” by Richard Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was the film’s main talking head. Per the credits he was also the film’s statistical adviser. The film presented Oppenheimer as “Dr.” and noted he was an environmental researcher, somehow implying that Oppenheimer has a PhD in the topics he was discussing. However, what the film didn’t clearly note was that Oppenheimer is actually a dentist without any research background (see meme). In addition to being an abolitionist vegan, Oppenheimer also owns a wholesale vegan food company called Ope’s, which ironically uses palm oil in its baked goods. So needless to note, both the book and the film based on the book further Oppenheimer’s business interests. Here’s a good review of Oppenheimer’s book citing its many fallacies many of which are repeated in Cowspiracy,

    • Mark555055

      so… you’re saying Oppenlander’s agenda is to dupe people into thinking meat and dairy is bad, so that they go vegan and buy his food? Ok so, you’re saying then that the meat and dairy industry is not duping people into believing their foods promote health and don’t harm the earth?

      Sounds like someone is trying to support their own self interests here, username fits the bill. 🙂

      • Support Small Farms

        Oppenlander is pushing an agenda that fulfills his self and business interest. Much of what he states is either downright erroneous, or an outright exaggeration (like citing World Watch or using pre 2004 rates for deforestation). Regardless not all meat is part of the “meat industry.” So what I specifically support is pastured based systems that are well managed that are not only NOT harmful, but are beneficial for the health of the planet. How is that possible? Soil health…..make an effort to understand soil science including soil microbiology and regenerative Ag, then you’ll realize that ruminants in preserved grassland ecosystems retain methane sinks, and improve carbon sequestration as well as increase water infiltration and retention. So no I don’t support the meat or dairy industries that you describe. I also don’t support the industrial Ag system that this system of animal Ag grew out of by using the by-products of that input intensive mono-crop farming. Like my name suggest I support small farms, not because I’m a farmer, but because that is the best way to change the industrial system as well as the best way to improve animal welfare, regenerate land and thus improve the health of the planet.

  • Laura Watkins

    I appreciate your very extensive and clear explanation Doug, but I would like to know why in such studies (on both ends of the spectrum) it is not taken into consideration the overlapping of the two issues (meat industry and fossil fuels). The fact that so many people in the western world eat large quantities of meat, also creates a huge amount of CO2 emission from the transportation of the animals, the processing of the meat and so on. In my opinion that should be taken into account in a study that aims to show the overall impact of the meat industry on the climate change…

    • FaunaAndFlora

      You don’t think fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains and pulses aren’t transported all over the globe? It’s a fact that most regions can support livestock. Very few regions can support the large-scale cultivation of fruits, nuts or vegetables.

      • USisLiberal

        What also should be taken into account is the very short shelf life of vegetables and the constant need to replenish those shelves on a regular basis when talking about food transportation. Which brings to mind; I would be curious to see a study that determines what percentage of food waste comes from vegetables, fruits and grain-based products compared to meat. I imagine it’s very lopsided.

      • FaunaAndFlora

        This is from a paper that used FAO data;

        GRAIN PRODUCTS…………… 38% LOSS / CONSUMED 62%

        SEAFOOD……………………….. 50% LOSS / CONSUMED 50%


        MEAT……………………………… 22% LOSS / CONSUMED 78%

        MILK……………………………….. 20% LOSS / CONSUMED 80%

    • Support Small Farms

      For both 2006 and 2013 FAO Long Shadow reports, those transportation numbers were actually factored into the emissions number for the animal Ag sector, since the animal Ag sector numbers were based on Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). Such analysis accounts for all the emissions from growing feed, to raising animals, to transporting life stock, to processing them etc.. Ironically though the much cited Long Shadow numbers which are the consensus for Doug’s cited 15% (14.5% to be exact) didn’t do similar LCA analysis for the transportation sector. The numbers fused for the transportation sector were borrowed from the IPCC and only counted tail pipe emissions. See highlighted portion of this graphic: So people frequently make the false statement that animal Ag’s LCA numbers (accounting for land use change, and not accounting for any mitigation) exceed the transportation sector as a whole. This is simply false since a true comparison would have to compared the LCA of both sectors which wasn’t done.

  • OnceJolly

    Goodland and Anhang use both the 20 year and the 100 year GWP for methane. The former is applied only to methane from livestock, while the latter continues to be used for methane from other sources (landfills, rice, fugitive emissions from fossil fuel extraction and distribution). The justification they later provide for this inconsistency is the claim that livestock numbers were much higher those used in the FAO analysis they were critiquing, but this involves a further inconsistency, as they compare estimates of the standing population (i.e. the number of animals alive at a point in time) with the total number of animals slaughtered in a year.

    • Support Small Farms

      My understanding is that they didn’t recalibrate any of the other numbers for sources of methane to the higher CO2 equivalencies is because they simply claimed this would require “further work.” Obviously if only one sector is recalibrated higher and the others aren’t, that one sector will have a much greater value on a percentage basis. Needless to say, the numbers were manipulated by Goodland to further Goodland’s advocacy. Here’s another good review of the 51% number

      • OnceJolly

        The “further work” involves a trivial calculation. I’ve documented their attempts to justify this omission here.

      • Support Small Farms

        Thanks fr the interesting link. Obviously doing those trivial calcs would have undermined their premise, so accepting and inflating the numbers that further the premise will be the ones accepted, while those that don’t further the premise will be omitted. Both the 2009 World Watch Report and the pseudo documentary are vegan advocacy pieces so the only thing that matters is the end game, the advocacy, so details be damned.

    • The big problem here is that CH4 converts to CO2 in the atmosphere, it takes some time to have all methane molecules converted, but still, it’s a cumulative problem source, because as far as I know there is no viable plan available to subtract CO2 (or CH4 for that matter) out of the blanket that heats up the planet these days. Also note that there’s a ~9 year delay for the max. temperature rise consequence of atmospheric CO2 (and thus earlier CH4):; as well as a non-stop rising boom of global Carbon emissions that has not turned downwards yet:

      • OnceJolly

        For livestock, it’s still part of the carbon cycle, since the carbon atom originally came from plant matter and can be reincorporated in plant matter once the methane molecule is oxidized to form CO2. The only issue is that as long as the carbon is part of a methane molecule, it’s absorptive properties are different. In any case, your comment has no relevance to Goodland and Anhang’s selective application of the 20 vs 100 year GWPs for methane.