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As Legal Challenges Against the Fossil Fuel Industry Notch Some Successes, Are Livestock Companies the Next Target?


Livestock agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, but lawsuits against the industry for its role in the climate crisis are only now starting to land in courtrooms and could become critical tools for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A new analysis from researchers at Yale Law School, published Monday in the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, tracks the small but rising trend of litigation aimed at the livestock industry and explores potential future legal strategies as the climate crisis accelerates along with global appetites for protein. The authors argue that, given emissions from livestock agriculture, its biggest players could be considered legal targets on par with fossil fuel industry giants like Exxon and Shell. 

“We know that climate litigation is picking up steam around the world,” said Daina Bray, a clinical lecturer and senior research scholar at the law school. “We weren’t seeing the same level of litigation with animal agriculture.”

Bray and her co-author, Thomas Poston, a third-year law student, find that’s changing as lawsuits mount against the industry and government regulators for their failure to address the industry’s role in the climate crisis. The momentum, they argue, comes in the wake of a string of successful legal action against the oil and gas industry—actions that are expected to continue after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the industry’s attempts to stop lawsuits from proceeding against Exxon and other oil companies.

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Bray and Poston spent two years analyzing legal databases to find cases involving both animal agriculture and climate impacts. The title of the resulting report, “Methane Majors,” is a play on “Carbon Majors”—the finding a decade ago that a handful of companies were responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions. The “Carbon Majors” concept helped spearhead legal action against governments and the fossil fuel industry, which have been gaining traction in recent years. Last year, for example, a Montana judge ruled that the state had violated the rights of young people by ignoring the climate change impacts of fossil fuel projects. 

Methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas and accounts for about 30 percent of global warming. Cutting methane emissions—which come mostly from livestock—presents a particularly expedient and effective way to slow warming, yet government regulators have continued to take a hands-off approach.

In the United States, one of the world’s biggest producers of livestock and dairy products, the Environmental Protection Agency has failed to require permits or monitoring for methane under the Clean Air Act. Annual spending bills in Congress contain language, inserted by lawmakers from livestock-intensive states, that prevent any funds from being used to require methane reporting or regulation. The Biden administration’s signature climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, imposes regulations on methane from oil and gas operations, but not animal agriculture facilities, the paper notes.

“Animal agriculture emissions are under-regulated and insufficiently addressed by climate policy,” Bray said. “No one thinks litigation is going to solve the problem, but particularly where policy is insufficient, it can be helpful in a largely unregulated space.”

Most of the legal action against the livestock industry, which is responsible for anywhere between 10 and 30 percent of global emissions depending on the calculation, has so far occurred in Europe, Bray and Poston found.

But a recent lawsuit, filed by the New York State Attorney General against JBS, the world’s largest beef company, could be an entry point for more litigation in the United States. New York Attorney General Letitia James filed the lawsuit in February, accusing JBS USA of misleading the public about its plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2040 despite its strategies to ramp-up production.

“When companies falsely advertise their commitment to sustainability, they are misleading consumers and endangering our planet,” James said in a press release. “JBS USA’s greenwashing exploits the pocketbooks of everyday Americans and the promise of a healthy planet for future generations.”

The New York lawsuit follows the same argument as another recent high-profile case in which the Danish High Court ruled that Europe’s biggest pork producer, Danish Crown, misled the public by calling its pork “climate controlled” and saying eating pork was beneficial for the climate.

These two cases both fall under consumer protection claims. Bray and Poston suggest that several other legal strategies could land livestock companies in court, including claims against government regulators or “tort” claims in which a plaintiff argues negligence or the breach of a duty to protect people from harm caused by climate change. 

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In February, the New Zealand Supreme Court ruled that a Maori community could sue seven companies, including energy companies and dairy giant, Fonterra, the country’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, on the basis that climate change is threatening Maori coastal land.

“The decision makes no major distinction between the defendants,” Poston said. “The claim against the fossil fuel companies is really the same claim, which is that they’re producing emissions and those are contributing to climate change and climate change will threaten the interests of [the] community.”

Bray and Poston lay out the legal intricacies of these and other cases, creating a kind of roadmap for future cases. 

“Perhaps most fundamentally, time is short,” they conclude, noting that even rapid reduction of the global economy’s production of carbon dioxide may not ward off the worst effects of climate change without aggressive action to cut methane and other shorter-lived climate pollutants.

“Well-founded litigation might be uniquely positioned to facilitate such action—which likely must include reduced production and consumption of animal products—where gridlocked political processes have failed.”



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