In early April, 2020 - anxieties of the (then) recently enforced national lockdown weighed heavy through the air as a nation of more than 1.3 billion souls came to a halt abruptly, in a necessary measure to curb the spread of Covid-19. When residents of Jalandhar, Punjab ventured onto their roofs – perhaps to acclimatize themselves to this nascent normal, or having found the rare morsel free time to do so in years – they found themselves, instead, standing in the shadows of the Himalayas (more than 200 KM away), for the first time in nearly three decades.
The amazement of being able to see one of the oldest and most revered mountain ranges in the world was quickly replaced by a bittersweet epiphany – it took something of such unexplainable gravity; akin to the corona virus crisis – to reclaim a sight that would have been normal, decades ago. Only when the relentless motion of the world, and the hues of modern life came crashing down - did the air pollution that accompanies both did too, thereby restoring a sight that has been lost to perhaps many generations, and forgotten by even more.
A common but significant oversight is that it’s not just vehicles and industries that are responsible for these blankets – unsustainable livestock farming produces immense quantities of greenhouse gases, as well as other air pollutants like ammonia and hydrogen sulphide that contribute massively to the suffering of both nature and humans. As per the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, raising livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the second highest source of emissions and greater than all transportation, combined. It also uses about 70% of agricultural land, and is one of the leading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.
New research shows that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife. The new analysis shows that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, it uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Other recent research shows 86% of all land mammals are now livestock or humans.
FAO figures show that the dairy sector emitted 1,969 million tonnes CO2-eq [±26 percent] of which 1,328 million tonnes is attributed to milk production. This happens because of a process known as enteric fermentation, during which cows produce copious amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas roughly 20-24 times more potent that carbon dioxide. Enteric fermentation, from the digestive processes of ruminants, including cows, buffalo, sheep, and goats, is responsible for 63 percent of this or 212 million tons of CO2 eq.
India itself is the world’s fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and the emissions of methane (CH4) from livestock in India are larger than that of any other country. With overall emissions having risen more than 50 percent between 1994 and 2007 - as well as the largest methane emitter (through livestock) due to its vast and enormous population of farmed cows, sheep and buffalo, amongst others. Additionally, the transportation processes involving livestock and meat products contribute to the problem, since a large amount of fossil fuel is utilised in the process.
Pollution has also wiped approximately 3.2 years from the life expectancies of 660 million people in the country, according to estimates. The air even manages to harm lives that haven’t even begun yet – effects on health can linger for years in children through prenatal exposure. This begs the question – is factory farming really worth it all?
What can be said on the very first observance of the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, being held on September 7th, is that now - more than ever – an emerging awareness of what has been lost exists; ensuring that not only are people aware of the significance of a blazing blue sky looming above them, but they are also willing to fight for it.
By also bringing together diverse international parties and perspectives working on this topic to form a unified and academic front towards air quality management, the day is an attempt to sustain what has perhaps been the only consolation to those not directly affected by the pandemic – the ability to breathe in lighter, clean, non-toxic air, and be able to revel in the vistas we have caused nature to hide, that she is more than happy to showcase otherwise.