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Latin American Cattle Block Road to Paris Goals

By Pablo Corso

Dense forest and patchy regulations mean Latin America is struggling to shake off its mantle as the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gas from livestock production.

"When extensive deforestation occurs … it drastically modifies the rural and urban environment through hydrologic imbalance, loss of fertile soil, climate cycle alterations, and biodiversity loss," explains Paraguayan environmental engineer Guillermo Achucarro—a former member of the climate NGO BASE in his country.

He believes that the goal of achieving  from Latin American livestock by 2050—agreed during the 2015 UN climate talks in Paris—"is something quite complicated, if not impossible."

Globally, Latin America has the highest emissions from livestock—a crucial activity for this region—with 1,889 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year, the measurement used to calculate carbon footprint.

The next largest emitters are East and Southeast Asia with 1,576 million tons, and Southern Asia with 1,507 million tons. The other two major global markets emit much less—North American livestock emit 604 million tons, and Western European livestock emit 579 million tons.

Latin American countries, while hosting only 14% of the global population, produce more than 23% of bovine and buffalo meat and 21% of poultry meat worldwide, according to an FAO document about the progress and challenges of the industry.

In Paraguay, the agriculture sector is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for half of the total, according to data from the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.

Louis Verchot, the research leader of an initiative on low-emissions food systems called Mitigate+, carried out through a joint venture between Bioversity International and CIAT, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, says deforestation is a critical concern in the region.

"Most net-zero agriculture approaches emphasize their productive aspects, while ignoring the deforestation caused by the activity, which generates emissions of the same magnitude," he says.

"The solution is multifaceted. Until now, success has depended on a combination of 'sticks and carrots,'" he says, giving examples such as monitoring and law enforcement, as well as offering alternatives for landowners who do not comply with regulations.

"Experience in Latin America has shown the importance of governance in resolving the deforestation problem."

At the end of last year, the World Bank called on Latin American countries to take "urgent measures" to reduce the impacts of climate change on productivity and harvests, because "food insecurity could be exacerbated."

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the region saw significant increases in food insecurity, affecting more than 16 million people across the region.

According to the World Bank report, if emissions from food production are not decreased, the rise in temperatures could result in as many as 6 million Latin American residents falling into extreme poverty by 2030, and another 17 million being displaced from their homes by 2050.

Agriculture, livestock and related activities represent 47% of greenhouse gas emissions in the region, above the global average of 19%, according to the report.

Among the main reasons for that are the increased availability of lands, the fact that emissions are counted where food is cultivated and not where they are consumed, and the limited presence of alternatives with higher productivity levels, according to Verchot.

Politics also plays a major role in the high emissions from the region.

For example, Paraguay has the second highest deforestation rates in South America after Brazil—a situation exacerbated by a scheme of "co-optation of the state by the money and power of the food production sector," according to Achucarro, and thanks to alliance with the conservative "Colorado party" that includes "ranchers and soya producers" in the government.

Government decisions also collide with the need for climate emissions reductions in Argentina, one of the five main soya producers of the world, where droughts might cut yields by as much a half by 2050, according to the World Bank.

In its survey on national commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions, the UN's FAO reveals that Argentina does not have any mitigation initiatives for the agricultural sector, even though it plans to increase meat and milk production, something that could worsen under the current "ultraliberal" government of Javier Milei.

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