As the European Union (EU) seeks ways to do its part in meeting a Global Methane Goal of quickly reducing the emissions of the highly potent, climate-changing gas, it’s unfortunate that some there are looking at agriculture – and particularly the livestock sector – as a ready target of blame while seeking cutbacks in farm production.
The EU and the United States joined other nations at the global climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, last November in signing on to a commitment – the Global Methane Pledge – to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030.
Officials say that to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Centigrade (C) and avoid what they characterize as a “near-term tipping point” toward a climate disaster, efforts must be made to rapidly reduce methane emissions, which are said to be at least 25 times more powerful in trapping atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide.
Since the agreement reached in Glasgow, nearly 120 countries have joined the U.S. and the EU – a total collaboration representing half of global methane emissions and nearly three-quarters of the global economy – in promising efforts to attain the methane-reduction goal.
An unfortunate consequence of this effort to reduce methane is discussion – though narrow in scope to date – that targets the livestock industry for cutbacks. A paper issued by the Changing Markets Foundation, a European based organization that characterizes itself as a proponent of using markets to meet sustainability challenges, contends that if the EU can persuade 10 percent of its citizens to switch to diets containing less meat and dairy, a 34-percent reduction in methane emissions could be reached.
It’s a shoot-from-the-hip proposition from an organization that fails to understand any move to reduce the number of animals as a way of reducing GHG emissions will only displace meat, egg and dairy production to other countries that have even higher GHG emissions compared to EU agriculture. Furthermore, such a wrong-headed move would have the unintended consequence of reducing important and critically needed sources of protein and nutrients from EU diets.
The report acknowledges that methane emissions from EU agriculture have fallen 4 percent in recent years. That number is expected to improve as more and more livestock operators adopt climate-conscious practices, such as using high-quality feed that reduces methane released from enteric fermentation, as well as managing manure to reduce the release of methane and nitrous oxide, including covering manure storage facilities.
Frank Mitloehner, a professor and air quality Extension specialist with the University of California, says that when a gas such as methane – known as a flow gas – is emitted, it is stagnant and an equal amount of the gas is destroyed at the same rate that it is put into the atmosphere. For that reason, he said, it is possible to reduce warming and other impacts to the climate by reducing the amount of methane produced.
Efforts to reduce methane emissions by livestock operators are paying off, with releases falling in manner reflective of a decrease in dairy cows, which now number some 9 million compared to 25 million a decade ago. Even with fewer numbers, the sector continues to produce the same amount of dairy products that it did with nearly three times fewer animals.
In looking at the global methane picture, it’s important to remember that the world’s three largest emitters – China, Russia and India – have yet to make a commitment to reducing their release of this potent GHG. Together, they make up about one-third of all methane emissions. While U.S. officials said last year that Russia had shown interest in joining the methane-reduction effort, that was before war in Ukraine broke out.
Here in the United States according to the White House, the federal government is taking a different approach embracing the expansion of voluntary adoption of climate-smart agriculture practices that will reduce methane emissions from key agriculture sources by incentivizing the deployment of improved manure management systems, anaerobic digesters, new livestock feeds, composting, and other practices.
Farmers, ranchers and forestland owners are showing they are taking seriously the threats posed by a changing climate. Strong and effective efforts in the agriculture sector – and particularly among livestock operators – are showing success in bringing down methane emissions, all while simultaneous providing ecosystem service benefits. USDA’s approach of spurring producers to voluntarily adopt the management practices and systems that reduce their methane footprint will have significantly better results than mandating measures that fail to recognize each operation’s location, means of production and its net benefits to society.