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Focusing on emissions intensity as opposed to overall emissions

What is the greenwashing trick?

Big Livestock companies distract from their overall emissions and impact on the climate by focusing on “emissions intensity”. Emissions intensity refers to the amount of emissions released per kilogram of an animal product or in terms of economic units. 

If a company raise and process its livestock more efficiently – by using technology, feed additives, and other interventions – they can claim that they are producing “more sustainable” meat and dairy.

An FAO study in conjunction with the dairy industry shows how emissions intensity reduction has done little to stop overall emissions rising in the sector: While emissions intensity decreased by 11% between 2005 – 2015, overall dairy emissions increased by 18% in the same period. This is because the overall quantity of milk produced and processed increased.

As the livestock industry grows, so do overall emissions. Livestock is already responsible for about 14.5% of global emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. If current trends continue, the global livestock industry will be using up almost half the world’s 1.5°C emissions budget by 2030

The bottom line: we need a significant and absolute reduction in livestock production to avert climate catastrophe.

How is this trick used?

In short, companies distract from the absolute reduction of emissions they should be making by being ambitious about reducing emissions per unit of meat or dairy.

Focusing on Denmark makes this point starkly. A 2021 analysis by academics showed that if business as usual dairy production continues, by 2030 the dairy company Arla would be responsible for 60% of Denmark’s total emissions. Meat company Danish Crown’s share of emissions will rise from 29% today to 42% in the future – meaning just two companies in Denmark would surpass the entire country’s projected emissions.

Why is this bad for the climate crisis?

To fight climate change, we have to focus on absolute emissions. The reality is that the number of animals in company supply chains is not decreasing. 

Even if the Big Livestock industry manages to cut its emissions intensity in the future, its rapid growth will easily cancel out any efficiency gains. Meaningful climate action requires a reduction in meat and dairy production, but the Big Livestock industry has no plans to do this as it would mean less profit. 

Without transitioning away from the industrial model of animal agriculture, the world’s remaining forests face destruction and “agriculture alone would produce almost twice the emissions allowable from all human activities” by 2050, according to the World Resources Institute.

Who is using this Greenwashing trick?




“Our owners are amongst the best in the world in terms of efficient and sustainable production, with only 1.15 kg CO₂e emissions per kg of milk”

Arla Sustainability Report, 2021, p. 9


We need a significant reduction in livestock production and absolute reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to avert climate catastrophe. Big Livestock focuses on the emissions per product – the emissions intensity – and shifts attention away from the total emissions their products create. When they improve emissions intensity even marginally, these companies claim that they are producing more sustainable meat. But those improvements are not big enough to cancel out the effects of the industry as a whole, and as the livestock sector grows, so do its overall emissions.