In its effort to lead the global push against climate change, the world’s second-largest economy has assigned soldiers to tree-planting duty, spent billions of dollars on cleaner energy (pdf), and has actively pushed some of its cities away from using coal.
Still, China has yet to figure out what to do about one of its biggest environmental hurdles—its demand for milk.
That’s because the world’s most populous country is expected to almost triple its consumption of dairy across the next 30 years, according to a study published this month in the journal, Global Change Biology. To figure out just how much the world would be impacted by China’s appetite for dairy by 2050, a team of researchers led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences set out to assess what factors in the country would drive milk consumption and measure the ultimate impact.
In short, the rising demand for for dairy in China will increase the amount of greenhouse-gas emissions coming from dairy herds by 35%, it’ll require 32% more land be dedicated to dairy, and it will boost nitrogen pollution from production by 48%, according to the study.
The bad news is there’s no way to avoid the increases. The possible good news is that by modernizing how farmers handle nitrogen-rich manure, changing dairy cow diets to reduce methane emissions, and improving land management, the increases could be more modest.
The world’s 270 million dairy cows live on farms that produce the manure, ammonia, methane, and nitrous oxide that are negatively impacting the climate. The agricultural sector accounts for about 14% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations.
“The consequences of sticking to a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario are unthinkable,” the lead author of the study, Zhaohai Bai, has said.
Between 1961 and 2016, milk consumption in China increased more than 25 times to 31 kg (68 lb) per capita each year. (Milk is measured by the weight of its milk-fat content.) It’s now the world’s largest importer of milk and per-capita consumption is expect to increase to 82 kg per year by 2050, according to the study.
It’s become a familiar narrative, one that’s been unfolding in the nation for some time. China is developing rapidly, creating a larger middle class with more purchasing power. With more money to spend, the more people are indulging in dairy and meat products.
“For a more sustainable dairy future globally, high milk demanding regions, such as China, must match the production efficiencies of the world’s leading producers,” Bai said.