“These emissions from cows are a concern to the left because these bovine emissions have an environmental impact and the methane gas produced by the bovine flatulence contributes to the greenhouse gases that contributes to global warming,” Pirro said, adding contemptuously, “Need I say more?”
A summary of the deal released last week says it sets “a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast.”
And despite Pirro’s attempt to mock the plan, a 2011 United Nations report found that methane produced by livestock is responsible for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gasses emitted by the agricultural industry.
Along with Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is promoting the Green New Deal and it has received support from key Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y), Cory Booker (N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.). But it has been met with pushback from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who in a recent Politico interview appeared to be unaware of the bill’s name.
The plan’s economic focus on job creation through accelerating transitions of to clean energy echoes President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Great Depression-era New Deal enacted in the 1930s.
Here at Climate Reality, we sometimes need to take a step back.
You know how your good friend Dave can rattle off pre-season stats with the precision of a brain surgeon, always seems to win your fantasy football league, and can’t begin to understand why you’re still rooting for [insert “Your Team” here]? Well, we’re kind of the Dave of climate action.
We’re so in the thick of climate everything that we can forget the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report isn’t exactly flying off the shelves, so to speak, like Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming.
But every so often, a headline will pop up that brings us right back down to the very Earth we’re working so hard to protect.
So, that’s why we’re getting back to basics to answer one of the most foundational questions a person can have about our warming world: What exactly are greenhouse gases, anyway?
WELL, THEY’RE GASES, SILLY BILLY
That’s right! They’re also largely naturally occurring. But they act a little differently than non-greenhouse gases like nitrogen, oxygen, and argon.
You see, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, greenhouse gases (GHG) like carbon dioxide (the main GHG driving climate change), include “any gas that has the property of absorbing infrared radiation (net heat energy) emitted from Earth’s surface and reradiating it back to Earth’s surface.”
Did you get all that? Some but not all? Same.
In more straightforward speak, here’s the gist: GHGs like CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone let sunlight in to heat the Earth’s surface but they don’t let all that heat energy back out. Think about it like the global equivalent of wrapping yourself up in a big blanket – or the way the glass walls and roof of an actual greenhouse let sunlight in during daylight hours and retain that warmth at night.
Actually, it’s exactly like that. Hence their name. Get it?
SO THEY “TRAP” HEAT IN THE ATMOSPHERE?
Yes. And under normal circumstance, this is a great, necessary thing – and it’s exactly how the planet is built to work.
“Earth’s surface warms up in the sunlight. At night, Earth’s surface cools, releasing the heat back into the air,” NASA’s Climate Kids explains. “But some of the heat is trapped by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That’s what keeps our Earth a warm and cozy 59 degrees Fahrenheit, on average.”
This is known as the “greenhouse effect,” and without it the planet would be too cold to support life. NASA estimates that without naturally occurring GHGs, Earth’s average temperature would be near 0 degrees Fahrenheit (a very chilly negative 18 degrees Celsius).
The concern with GHGs isn’t the gases themselves – at least not on their own. Like we mentioned, most are naturally occurring and their action to retain heat is imperative for life on Earth. The problem has to do with the amount of certain GHGs in our modern atmosphere.
Since the Industrial Revolution, our burning of fossil fuels for energy has emitted hundreds of billions of tons of heat-trapping CO2 into the atmosphere, where it stays for a very long time. More and more CO2 (and other GHGs) means more and more heat.
Unlike the naturally occurring CO2 that acts as part of the normal greenhouse-effect process, this added carbon and the extra heat are more than the Earth’s finely balanced systems can handle. At least without changing our climate and making storms more violent, oceans more acidic, and on and on.
With all the coal, oil, and gas being burned, it’s unsurprising then that CO2 levels as of 2017 (the most-recent complete year) stood at 405.0 parts per million (ppm), higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years.
If history is any guide here, that’s not good news for the Earth – or for us.
“The last time the atmospheric CO2 amounts were this high was more than 3 million years ago, when temperature was 2°–3°C (3.6°–5.4°F) higher than during the pre-industrial era, and sea level was 15–25 meters (50–80 feet) higher than today,” according to NOAA.
Remember the bottom line here: Burning fossil fuels creates GHGs, polluting the atmosphere. More GHGs equals more heat and more climate change. More dangerous storms. More terrible wildfires. More farms drying out. More diseases spreading further across the Earth. You get the picture.
WHAT CAN I DO?
Our movement is at a critical turning point in the fight for common-sense solutions to the climate crisis. The good news is, the power to make meaningful progress on climate is in our hands.
But it all starts with understanding what is happening to our planet.
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In the United States, carbon emissions leapt back up, making their largest year-over-year increase since the end of the Great Recession. This matched the trend across the globe. According to two majorstudies, greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide shot up in 2018—accelerating like a “speeding freight train,” as one scientist put it.
U.S. emissions do remain 11 percent below their 2007 peak, but that is one of the few bright spots in the data. Global emissions are now higher than ever. And the 2018 statistics are all the more dismal because greenhouse-gas emissions had previously seemed to be slowing or even declining, both in the United States and around the world.
Many economists expect carbon emissions to drop somewhat throughout the next few decades. But maybe they won’t. If 2018 is any indication, meekly positive energy trends will not handily reduce emissions, even in developed economies like the United States. It raises a bleak question: Are we currently on the worst-case scenario for climate change?
“We’re actually a lot closer than we should be; I can say that with confidence,” says Rob Jackson, an Earth scientist at Stanford and the chair of the Global Carbon Project, which leads the research tracking worldwide emissions levels.
When climate scientists want to tell a story about the future of the planet, they use a set of four standard scenarios called “representative concentration pathways,” or RCPs. RCPs are ubiquitous in climate science, appearing in virtually any study that uses climate models to investigate the 21st century. They’ve popped up in research about subjects as disparate assouthwestern mega-droughts, future immigration flows to Europe, and poor nighttime sleep quality.
Each RCP is assigned a number that describes how the climate will fare in the year 2100. Generally, a higher RCP number describes a scarier fate: It means that humanity emitted more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during the 21st century, further warming the planet and acidifying the ocean. The best-case scenario is called RCP 2.6. The worst case is RCP 8.5.
“God help us if 8.5 turns out to be the right scenario,” Jackson told me. Under RCP 8.5, the world’s average temperature would rise by 4.9 degrees Celsius, or nearly 9 degrees Fahrenheit. “That’s an inconceivable increase for global temperatures—especially when we think about them being global average temperatures,” he said. “Temperatures will be even higher in the northern latitudes, and higher over land than over the ocean.”
This scenario could still be in the planet’s future, according to Zeke Hausfather, an analyst and climate scientist at Berkeley Earth. Since 2005, total global greenhouse-gas emissions have most closely tracked the RCP 8.5 scenario, he says. “There may be good reasons to be skeptical of RCP 8.5’s late-century values, but observations to-date don’t really give us grounds to exclude it,” he recently wrote.
Even if we avoid RCP 8.5, the less dramatic possibilities still could lead to catastrophic warming. Jackson, the Stanford professor, warned that every emissions scenario that meets the Paris Agreement’s 2-degree Celsius “goal” assumes that humanity will soon develop technology to remove carbon directly from the atmosphere. Such technology has never existed at industrial scales.
“Even some [of the scenarios] for 3 degrees Celsius assume that at some point in the next 50 years, we will have large-scale industrial activities to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous game, I think. We’re assuming that this thing we can’t do today will somehow be possible and cheaper in the future. I believe in tech, but I don’t believe in magic.”
Yet not all data suggest that we’re doomed to RCP 8.5 or equivalent amounts of warming, Hausfather cautions. If you look only at pollution from fossil-fuel burning—and not from land-use events like deforestation—then humanity’s recent record trends closer to RCP 4.5.
There are a few reasons it’s hard to say which RCP comes closest to our reality. First, most of the RCPs tell roughly the same story about global emissions until about 2025 or 2030. Second, the RCPs describe emissions across the entire sweep of the 21st century—and the century mostly hasn’t happened yet. Trying to pick the most likely RCP in 2018 is a bit like trying to predict the precise depth of late-night snowfall at 4:32 a.m.
The RCP 8.5 scenario may also become less likely in years to come, even if major polluters like the United States, China, and India never pass muscular climate policy. RCP 8.5 says that the global coal industry will eventually become seven times bigger than it is today. “It’s tough to claim that … that is a business-as-usual world,” Hausfather says. “It’s certainly a possible world, but we also live in a world today where solar is increasingly cheaper than coal.”
That’s part of the reason the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will soon expand its list of standard scenarios. Its next major synthesis report, due to be published in 2021, will replace RCPs with five “socioeconomic pathways” that allow for a broader range of futures.
Jackson urged caution. “We don’t know yet what scenario we’re on,” he said. “I think most climate scientists will tell you that we’re below the 8.5 scenario. But every year that emissions increase like they have this year, it makes the 8.5 scenario more plausible.”
Jackson published his first academic paper in 1989, just a year after the nasascientist James Hansen first warned Congress that global warming had begun in earnest. I asked whether he thought actual emissions would ever come close to RCP 8.5.
“It’s nuts,” he said. “But I used to think a lot of things were nuts that turned out not to be nuts.”
Eloise Gibson is Newsroom’s environment and science editor. She’s written for the New Zealand Herald, Stuff.co.nz, The Listener, and BBC Future.com. Twitter: @eloise_gibson.
The Government’s proposal for a Zero Carbon Bill has exposed an argument between scientists about the importance of methane. But it’s not really about science, as Eloise Gibson reports in this deep-dive news feature.
There’s beef in the world of methane.
Like a piece of marbled Wagyu, it is probably quite healthy — if consumed in moderation.
The argument is over when and how much New Zealand should reduce the methane from cow and sheep burps, which make up almost a third of our emissions, as we currently record them.
On one side is David Frame, director of Victoria University’s Climate Change Research Institute. He says we shouldn’t pressure farmers to cut livestock methane until we’ve got a bigger bogey, carbon dioxide, under control. Even then, he’d be content to keep methane flowing at its current rate or make very gentle cuts.
On the other side are several other prominent New Zealand climate researchers and scientific heavyweights. They say every molecule of methane heats the climate and the more we’re able to cut it, the better.
It might seem like an argument only climate scientists would care about. But the outcome may help shape the government’s planned Zero Carbon Bill and the rolling targets that will be set by a climate commission.
A very strict methane target could change the face of New Zealand’s $20 billion meat and dairy export industry.
A very light one might mean farming-as-usual.
While cowboys duel with pistols at dawn, climate researchers battle using charts and graphs attached to terse-but-polite emails. People on both sides are vying for the ears of policy-makers and any journalist who ventures into methane territory risks being cc’ed on group arguments.
Ordinary people are, understandably, confused.
Take this string of numbers: In August, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, issued a report saying 10-22 percent cuts to methane would be needed by 2050 to stabilise New Zealand livestock’s contribution to climate change.
In September, Sir Peter Gluckman put out his final report as Jacinda Ardern’s chief science advisor, which said there were “many reasons for acting aggressively” on animal gases, adding that calls to put less emphasis on methane were “counter-productive”. (That stung. Frame emailed Gluckman asking: why?).
In October, an IPCC report said countries needed to cut methane by 35 percent by 2050, to stay within 1.5C warming.
Then the submission-writers had their say: 91 percent of long public submissions on the proposed Zero Carbon Bill favoured getting all gases, including methane, to net zero.
A little confusingly, almost a third of those people went on to say they’d be okay with some ongoing methane emissions, provided there were “significant” cuts.
Meanwhile Frame was writing op-ed articles, explaining why he thought everyone else was being too hard on methane. He’d support anywhere between 0 and 25 percent reductions by 2050, he says, but he’d prefer a soft start followed by a stricter cut if new technologies come off.
The flurry of views made people think there must be scientific disagreement. “Which PhD is right?” quailed Federated Farmers’ climate change spokesman Andrew Hoggard after the IPCC report.
But it turns out this beef is not about science. The numbers aren’t contradictory, they just measure different things. The hard part is picking a target. And that turns on how you, ahem, frame the science.
A quick recap: methane comes from rice paddies, coal seams, wetlands, cows’ stomachs and other swampy, airtight spaces. In New Zealand, it mostly comes from cow and sheep burps, which gives methane targets potential to pit city against country people.
Methane doesn’t cause much angst in most developed countries, since carbon almost totally dominates their greenhouse gas ledgers. But New Zealand’s high number of ruminant animals per capita makes us the highest per-capita emitter of methane. Methane makes up around one third of our emissions, as they are currently accounted for internationally. There is another greenhouse gas from farming, nitrous oxide, but it barely features in this argument because both sides agree it should be treated the same as carbon dioxide. And, while some countries have stemmed methane at no cost just by plugging natural gas leaks, cutting methane from animals is a trickier proposition. Doing so requires taming their gut microbes, which has proved challenging.
If you’ve had a beer with a switched-on farmer lately, you’ve probably heard that methane is short-lived. It’s true, at least on geological timescales. Methane mostly disappears from the atmosphere within a decade or two, although it leaves some lingering effects. (How big these are is a matter of slight disagreement). That makes its lifetime short compared to carbon dioxide, which is basically immortal. But while methane remains in the atmosphere, it’s potent.
It’s easy to think that temperatures are on a one-way trajectory up, and, with CO2, they are, because releasing carbon dioxide locks in warming for centuries. But with methane, if the flow stops, so does most of its warming. Cutting methane emissions (along with obliterating CO2) could cause temperatures to fall, or at least rise less than they would have. The effect would be similar to taking carbon out of the atmosphere, as scientists hope to one day do with carbon sequestration.
Frame and his opponents share a lot of common turf. Here are some uncontroversial points:
(Conflicting charts can be addressed to the editor at Newsroom).
1. CO2 is a much bigger climate problem than methane and there’s much more of it. It needs to fall to zero to avoid catastrophic climate change involving temperatures of 3C, 4C or 5C higher or worse. If we don’t tackle carbon, as one researcher put it: “Methane scarcely matters because we’re all going to hell in a hand basket anyway.”
2. No-one wants to go to hell in a hand basket.
3. As well as making deep and urgent cuts to carbon we could reduce peak temperatures (and cool things down a bit along the way) by cutting methane. But methane needn’t fall to zero. (This is lucky because it would make farming difficult. Rice and lots of other farm animals make methane, too, just not as much as cows do).
4. The constant flow of methane we produce with human activities keeps the planet consistently warmer (maybe in the order of 0.25C to 0.4C warmer) than it otherwise would be. Stabilising or making small cuts to methane would be enough to stop temperatures rising further, if CO2 hit net zero. Making deeper cuts to methane would take away some of the warming it is causing now, aka cool things off.
5. None of this come across very well in the methods countries often use to compare greenhouse gases (called GWP100). This exercise involves pretending each gas’ effects are spread over 100 years and converting each gas to CO2-equivalents. On that measure, a unit of methane is about 31 times worse than a unit of carbon. But that doesn’t tell you much about what methane does to temperatures. Researchers on both sides are devising and using alternative metrics to do this better, and those are the basis for their views in this story.
This is the point where Frame starts to diverge from many of his colleagues. By the way, he knows he’s making his contemporaries grumpy, and, yes, it’s a bit uncomfortable. “There’s a lot more grief than there is high-fiving,” he says. “I know I’m irritating people and I don’t enjoy that.”
For the record, Frame says he doesn’t get any funding from agricultural interests. Beef & Lamb NZ bought him two pints of IPA and a flat white when they met him to discuss methane and that, he says, is about the extent of the farm industry’s largesse. “I’ve felt like I’ve had to pipe up because, if I don’t, who else is going to?” he says. “I’ve felt like there was research missing from official positions.”
Frame is a former Senior Research Fellow at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford who once led New Zealand’s climate change-themed Deep South National Science Challenge.
The research Frame highlights models what happens to temperatures if people make cuts to various gases. If people cut methane instead of cutting carbon dioxide that would be a mistake, he says, because it leaves the planet warmer, long-term. If they cut both gases, the cuts to methane would help lower the peak of global warming. But there’s little benefit to making cuts early, because long-term the temperature ends up the same regardless of whether the methane is cut now or in 20 years’, he says. And, no matter what we do with methane, CO2determines most of the temperature rise. “If you stabilise the methane and get the two long-lived gases (CO2 and nitrous oxide) to zero, you basically stop the warming,” he says.
What Frame takes from this is that we aren’t taking carbon dioxide nearly seriously enough in New Zealand. He acknowledges that the Productivity Commission and others have started trying to map a path to carbon zero. But based on our current efforts (rising transport emissions) he thinks the idea that carbon will fall to zero by 2050 is “Pollyanna-ish”.
Frame says it doesn’t make sense to pressure farmers to cut methane until we’re well on the way with carbon. “At this point it is really about stopping the growth of CO2so why not stop pretending it’s about anything else and get on with that?” he says. “Where is the plan?” he says. “Once you have that, yes, let’s talk about methane.”
His opponents agree that CO2 must fall to zero, though they don’t see any obstacle to cutting methane as well. But Frame thinks focusing on methane has an opportunity cost. “If I thought people were sincerely on board with the CO2point then sure,” he says. “I don’t see it.”
This brings him to a sore point about funding, and what he thinks it has done to this debate. He thinks our policy-makers are receiving advice that blames methane too much for things. They’re hearing the correct science, he says, but it’s being phrased the wrong way. “Yes we all agree CO2 is really important but I feel like that’s in little 8 point font at the beginning of the sentence and then in 42 point font BUT WHAT ABOUT METHANE?,” he says. “It’s the way the New Zealand conversation goes.”
“There’s a strong willingness to emphasise the badness of methane but anything that might count in its defence is not shared so widely,” he says. “I think it has to do with the urban/rural divide.”
Frame’s complaint about funding is that in the decade to 2019, governments allocated $48.5 million to the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC), a hub that co-ordinates scientists’ efforts to cut methane and nitrous oxide. There’s also been additional money for a global project that we launched with the United States a decade ago. While there are funds that carbon-focused researchers can apply for, we’ve assumed that other countries would put the big bucks into carbon-cutting tech, says Frame.
Frame thinks that was a mistake. “If agriculture is the only thing you invest it in will be the only thing you’re good at,” he says. “Why not tidal power or smart grid management?”
Frame goes further – he thinks that methane-specialists get too much air-time with policy influencers in Wellington, because of their strong government investment. It irks him that people like Gluckman don’t consult someone like him who’d give them an alternative view on methane. “I would have loved the chance to talk to Peter Gluckman,” he says.
Frame doesn’t blame the NZAGRC; it’s their job to focus on methane. But he wishes there was a carbon-equivalent: “Where is the analogous organisation like the NZAGRC to mitigate CO2, because if you had it there would be a voice for it and it could irritate all the people I’m irritating,” he says. “It would save me a job.”
Frame didn’t see a strong counterpoint on methane, so he decided to become it. Hence his volley of op-eds.
The case for cuts
Other prominent climate researchers, both methane specialists and others, find Frame’s views a little puzzling.
“Every bit of methane emitted keeps the world warmer than it would be without that methane. That’s unambiguously true,” says Andy Reisinger, the deputy director of the NZAGRC. Reisinger is something of a go-to farm gas expert in Wellington, so you might describe him as Frame’s main adversary, were this not such a polite and personable battle (remember, climate scientists fight with graphs only).
Both men agree that their science is mostly compatible.
“It’s about emphasis and priorities,” says Frame.
“On the science, you’d hardly get a sheet of paper between us,” says Reisinger. “It’s how you frame the science.”
How Reisinger frames it is like this. He says that if politicians seriously want to stay within 1.5C or 2C of warming: “We cannot reduce Co2 rapidly enough to remain within that kind of temperature limit, [so] we’d need to reduce emissions of all gases and even more urgently with methane emissions,” he says. “They don’t have to go to zero, because any reduction is good, but the more we can reduce methane the better from a climate perspective.”
Martin Manning, the former director (before Frame) of Victoria’s University’s Climate Change Research Institute, agrees. “I’d use the analogy of the medical profession,” says Manning. “If you tried to get them to prioritise one aspect of human healthcare they’d just laugh because you can’t do that,” he says. It’s the same with carbon dioxide and methane, says Manning. “It’s not one or the other. You’ve got to look at everything,” he says. “If a dairy farmer’s feeding practices for his cows can reduce emissions, he can do that in parallel with bringing in electric cars faster.”
Suzi Kerr is an economist specialising in climate change at Motu. She agrees with Frame there could be more funding for carbon dioxide-cutting techniques, although she doesn’t think a single NZAGRC-like entity would work. “There are obvious things that could be researched in New Zealand…for example we might be one of the first countries in the world to go genuinely zero emission for our electricity and that’s not something other counties have had to do yet. Working out how to convert our steel production to zero emissions – someone needs to work out how to do that.”
Kerr also agrees that urban people have been blaming farmers for emissions – and it’s been counterproductive. “I agree that urban New Zealand has had a big thing about dirty dairying and there is a whole lot of emotion around that, but there is also a reality to it as well,” she says. “Yes, we need to do something about biological emissions, but people talk as if it’s the farmer’s fault and the farmers feel terrible,” she says.
But Kerr says that just because the rhetoric is blaming, it doesn’t mean farmers have been unfairly targeted. “We have had all of the energy and processing emissions in the emissions trading scheme for the last 10 years and we have done nothing on methane and nitrous oxide emissions,” she says. “Yes, there was a period of about five years when the [emissions] price was almost nothing. But increasingly firms are thinking about it,” she says. “The agricultural sector has been behind that because they have mostly been in ‘fight regulation’ mode.”
While many farmers have been resistant, Kerr thinks they’d be better off if New Zealand as a whole started finding ways to shrink their emissions now.
Some 23,000 households live and work on farms, and finding ways to change their practices without bankrupting or blaming them is a major exercise, she says. “We need to move on to more useful conversations because [the methane debate] is becoming another distraction,” she says. “Dave Frame presents this as we either deal with CO2, or we deal with methane, as though there’s a fixed amount of effort we can make,” says Kerr. “But…it’s possible we will do more on both. And if we reduce [methane] now, it would have immediate impacts on current temperature and temperature over the next 15-18 years.”
Kerr thinks that the last point, about temperatures, is crucial. Carbon is equally bad over all timeframes. But methane uniquely affects the short-term. Frame argues that methane can wait because making cuts in twenty years has the same impact on peak temperatures as doing it today. But Kerr says that misses something: “It’s not just peak temperature that affects people. It’s temperatures along the way,” she says. “We have to think, when do we think humans are going to experience the worst damage from climate change? It could be when the climate has heated the most. But it’s also possible that it will be in the next 20 or so years, when there are a lot of very poor people living in developing countries without the ability to adapt,” she says. “Maybe in 30 years they can cope because they have air conditioning and a stable society,” she says.
“We will have worked out how to retreat better from the coast, we will have better systems for managing extreme events, we may also find carbon sequestration and storage that’s cheap…I wouldn’t rely on it, but some people are optimistic.”
There’s one more issue about methane. Manning, a methane researcher, has concerns about the gas itself and the assumption it moves through the atmosphere quickly. “We are stressing the natural systems that [remove methane] for us,” says Manning. “If you’re stressing those natural removal processes, everything counts.”
Methane gets removed from the atmosphere by natural detergents, called hydroxyl radicals. IPCC climate models have always assumed that this self-cleaning process runs at a certain pace. But two unexplained spikes in methane led scientists to wonder if this atmospheric cleaning might be slowing down, for reasons linked to global warming. Manning says there’s increasing evidence that this happening, though he and other researchers are still trying to confirm it. “One of the reasons why you can’t ignore methane is that, although we don’t exactly know what’s going on, it’s going up at very fast rates,” he says.
Merely flattening methane could work, says Manning, if people cut CO2 very quickly. However: “If we push the whole system to the point where the natural controls for methane are no longer keeping up, we are really going to have to hit methane harder. We won’t know for probably 5-10 years just how bad this is.”
COST VERSUS CLIMATE
The climate doesn’t care about the cost of cutting greenhouse gases, but inevitably cost is in the background of all political conversations.
While scientists working under the auspices of the NZAGRC have made some significant findings, there’ve been no cheap, magical methane-stopping fixes. A hoped-for methane vaccine, as well as low-methane cows and low-methane genetically modified grass are works-in-progress.
Meanwhile, a Dutch company, DSM, has made an edible methane-shrinking compound, which the company will likely work with New Zealanders to try to adapt for our dairy cows. DSM’s powder cuts methane emissions by about a quarter. But until we have that kind of technology, deep methane cuts would need to come from changing land use, or carbon offsets. Good farming, such as breeding and farm management, can only reduce methane by an estimated 5-10 percent, says Gluckman. Normal productivity gains might shave off 22 percent by 2050 (based on the gains of the last twenty years), but only if we don’t increase dairy and meat production, says Reisinger.
The lack of easy options didn’t persuade Gluckman that we should back off methane. “There are no zero-emission strategies for biological greenhouse gases, yet there are many reasons to act aggressively to reduce their emissions. This goes beyond arguments of short-lived versus long-lived gases; there are also strong market and reputational reasons for driving down agricultural emissions,” he said in his report to Ardern, written with researcher Anne Bardsley.
Gluckman told Newsroom that consumers would move to alternative proteins faster than many people anticipated. “I think New Zealand faces a real threat that, if we remain a high methane producer per capita, it will be used against us by countries that can move into other ways (of farming) quicker,” he says. “The reality is that we live off selling food offshore and if the perception offshore is that our farmers are not making a contribution to reducing climate change there may be market resistance,” he says. “Freeloaders don’t tend to do very well, evolutionarily.”
But, while our reputation has value, our greenhouse targets will likely consider the domestic cost of burnishing it, by counting the cost of methane cuts. “If by 2050 we have a vaccine that costs 1c per animal and it reduces emissions by 50 percent, would it make sense to stick with only 22 percent reduction?” says Reisinger. “If mitigating methane was cost-free we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Exactly how much we can and should reduce emissions remains an open question. That’s despite what seemed like a series of competing reports on the topic this year.
Gluckman didn’t suggest any targets in his piece. Parliamentary Commissioner Simon Upton is writing a major report on farming emissions and greenhouse sinks currently, which will list some numbers and likely express a view. But he won’t be drawn into the quagmire of targets before it comes out in early 2019.
Upton asked Reisinger to take whatever tiny fraction of global warming was being caused by methane from New Zealand livestock, and calculate what would happen to that impact if we held our methane emissions steady. The intention was not to downplay New Zealand’s small slice of global emissions, but to find out what it would take for us to level off our impact (specifically, the impact of our farm animals).
Reisinger’s work showed that, if New Zealand kept producing the same amount of methane, the little slice of global warming that’s attributable to our livestock would be 10-20 bigger by 2050 than it is today (there are physics-related reasons why producing the same amount of methane would cause more warming over time). If we maintained the same emissions until 2100, our animals’ contribution to warming would grow by 25-40 percent compared with today, “which is quite a bit,” says Upton.
That skewered the idea that flat methane emissions would result in flat warming from methane. But the cuts needed to keep our contribution steady weren’t enormous: 10-22 percent by 2050. (Which end of the range is needed depends on how much other countries emit.)
Frame arrived independently at similar but slightly lower figures in a submission he wrote to the Environment Ministry: a 10-15 percent reduction by 2050 would hold our methane’s impact constant, he calculated. He told Newsroom he’d be happy with “anywhere from fixing methane emissions at today’s level (which would leave a little bit of warming) and reducing them by 20 to 25 per cent.”
People take different things from the numbers. Newsroom reported Reisinger’s figures for Upton as cuts that would give our cows a “clean climate conscience”. But the numbers don’t say whether ‘not worsening warming’ from our livestock is a good goal. Contributing no further warming merely means our livestock would continue to keep the planet hotter by the same tiny fraction they are responsible for today. Kerr describes it as a “random” thing to measure. “It’s become this real point of focus and it’s really farmers and sector bodies that, understandably, are looking for something that says they are not going to have to do too much.”
Reisinger says we need to ask what’s fair to other countries. “There are a lot of under-developed countries whose emissions must rise to give some space for development before they can come down again,” he says. “If all developed countries were saying ‘as long as we don’t add to further warming, we are fine’ that would leave 0.5C for all the developing world to reach the economic status that we have.”
Upton himself didn’t recommend a target, he just put the numbers out there. “I didn’t make any policy recommendations at all,” he told Newsroom. “I just wanted some good quality information.” He thinks the methane stoush is “a storm in a teacup”. “We know that…a reduction in the order of say 20 percent would put you in the ballpark of being able to say you weren’t adding to warming from the middle of the century onwards,” he says. That all he’ll say for now, except: “What I have said repeatedly is we have to do something about methane and nitrous oxide but none of that is a reason not to act much more vigorously on carbon dioxide.”
The IPCC posited deeper cuts than Upton’s numbers, because it had an ambitious goal — keeping warming within 1.5C. Unlike the simple methane-only exercise that Upton asked for, it modelled the cost-effectiveness and impact of cutting different gases for the whole globe, and looked at the interplay between gases. That’s was how the IPCC got a 35 per cent methane reduction by 2050, as well as getting carbon dioxide to zero.
You might expect that Frame would find 35 percent too high. But he found the IPCC report vindicating. “To me what it says is that even when you hit the brakes as hard as possible, harder than anyone thinks we actually will…you leave 65 per cent of the methane emissions.”
TRYING TO HELP
How hard people think we should combat methane partly depend whether they think people will act quickly on CO2. For people who don’t believe we’ll nail carbon dioxide, methane starts to fade into insignificance – after all, if carbon stays untrammeled, peak temperatures are a long way off and will shoot past 3C, 4C, or 5C regardless.
I ask Frame to put his Pollyanna hat on for a minute. If the government advanced a firm and credible plan for getting to zero carbon, quickly, would he be happy for New Zealand to also start now on cutting a quarter or a third off methane? “You’re assuming away the point of difference!” he says. “I would cheer loudly about the former, I would cheer about a plan to limit warming. But I would probably put the full stop there. And if we do stuff with methane too, yeah. Okay.”
And that is about as far as he’ll go towards mustering excitement about curbing methane. It’s because he cares about climate change that he wants us to put carbon first, he says. It’s never nice being at odds with your colleagues, but, then, robust discussion is a good thing, he says. Frame worked overseas for a long time and he thinks New Zealanders overrate consensus. “I think everyone’s trying to be constructive, even if we get a bit testy with each other,” he says. “People are trying to solve a problem and they are all trying to help.”
After all, this is the challenge of the century. The climate, and livelihoods are at stake. “We may believe each other mistaken but to me this is actually healthy,” says Frame. “Democracies should be contests of ideas.”
* People will have a chance to have their say on greenhouse gas targets in the Zero Carbon Bill during a select committee process, after the government introduces the bill to Parliament early next year. That bill may set a long goal, and leave short-term decisions to an independent Climate Commission. Right now, ministers are trying to win National’s support for the bill (as reported by Rod Oram)
Muostakh Island is part of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf which is the most vulnerable part of the Arctic coastline when it comes to permafrost thaw. Image credit – Prof. Igor Semiletov.
As temperatures rise in the Arctic, permafrost, or frozen ground, is thawing. As it does, greenhouse gases trapped within it are being released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane, leading to previously underestimated problems with ocean acidification and potential mercury poisoning.
About one quarter of the region is covered in permafrost, which is soil, sediment or rock that has been frozen for at least two years. With its retreat, the carbon that is released could contribute significantly to global warming.
‘We call it the sleeping giant of the global carbon cycle,’ said Professor Örjan Gustafsson, an environmental scientist at Stockholm University in Sweden. ‘It’s not really accounted for in climate models.’
Prof. Gustafsson and his colleagues are trying to determine exactly what permafrost consists of, how quickly it is warming and what happens when it thaws. To do this, they are drilling into three types of permafrost around the East Siberian Sea as part of a project called CC-Top.
In addition to the most common type found in soil on land, they will also be looking at high-carbon permafrost that formed about 50,000 years ago called Yedoma, and another type found under the seafloor of shallow coastal shelf areas that were flooded as sea levels rose about 11,650 years ago. ‘(This) subsea permafrost is the most vulnerable of the three so that’s the major focus of the project,’ Prof. Gustafsson said.
The researchers have been comparing the temperatures of permafrost on land and underwater. About 10,000 years ago, the temperature of both permafrost types was about -18˚C. They found that permafrost on the ground has now warmed up to about -10˚C but under the sea it has reached 0˚C. ‘That was surprising,’ Prof. Gustafsson said. ‘I had no idea that subsea permafrost was thawing so quickly.’
They’ve also examined what happens when thawed permafrost from land reaches the sea. Some of the released carbon reacts with water to form carbonic acid – the same gas present in fizzy water. Although it’s a weak acid, Prof. Gustafsson and his colleagues found that it contributes significantly to acidification of the Arctic ocean. This affects marine biodiversity. Acidic water, for example, dissolves the carbonate skeletons of organisms such as plankton.
The team’s findings point to much higher levels of ocean acidification than that predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their report published in 2014, which largely considered the effect of anthropogenic carbon emissions.
‘Acidification could be 100 times more severe,’ Prof. Gustafsson said. ‘Ocean acidification by permafrost carbon from land is a new mechanism we hadn’t thought about much, and we didn’t think it was so strong.’
Next, the team plans to investigate the methane that is escaping from subsea permafrost. In many parts of the Arctic, the concentration of the gas in seawater is high but the researchers aren’t exactly sure of its source. It could be the result of thawing permafrost soil or methane hydrates – solid methane buried underwater. Or it might originate from natural gas much deeper down that is reaching the surface through cracks in permafrost as it melts.
‘We really need to understand that to predict how methane releases will develop in the coming decades or centuries,’ said Prof. Gustafsson.
Permafrost thaw is already a growing concern for those living in the region who experience its effects. In coastal areas, where it is particularly prone to thawing, buildings constructed on permafrost are collapsing or becoming damaged due to thaw while roads are cracking. Escaping carbon and organic matter are also likely to have an impact on the wildlife that communities rely on for food.
‘Ocean acidification by permafrost carbon from land is a new mechanism we hadn’t thought about much, and we didn’t think it was so strong.’
Prof. Örjan Gustafsson, environmental scientist, Stockholm University, Sweden
Dr Hugues Lantuit, a researcher at Alfred-Wegener Institute in Potsdam, Germany, and his colleagues are interested in what happens to carbon and other substances that seep out from permafrost in these coastal areas as part of a project called Nunataryuk. They will be conducting fieldwork in Russia, Svalbard, Greenland, Canada and Alaska.
The project is involving local communities in their work. In Aklavik, a hamlet on the Yukon coast in Canada, for example, the team is consulting Inuit communities to pin down relevant sites for their research, such as areas where fish is plentiful or where erosion is pronounced.
Through meetings, the researchers gain insight into local issues that could be addressed in their research. In Svalbard, for example, where the coastline is rocky, permafrost thaw is mostly affecting infrastructure on land whereas coastal erosion is more of a concern in Russia and North America. At the same time, locals can learn scientific techniques from researchers. ‘It’s truly a learning experience on both sides,’ Dr Lantuit said.
Some communities are worried about the effect of climate change on wildlife, which they depend on for subsistence. One of the project’s goals is therefore to investigate the release of organic matter from thawing permafrost into the Arctic Ocean. ‘This has a direct impact on the fish population but we do not exactly understand how,’ Dr Lantuit said.
The team is trying to figure out whether thawing permafrost will make the sea cloudy by releasing sediment into the water, thus allowing less light to penetrate. This could result in fewer fish as the algae and plants they depend on for food can’t photosynthesise in dark water. Alternatively, it could have a positive effect. ‘More carbon could also mean more nutrients, so big party time for microorganisms, phytoplankton and potentially fish,’ said Dr Lantuit.
Thawing permafrost is also a health concern as it is expected to release contaminants and pathogens. In a study published earlier this year, members of the team found that permafrost contains more mercury than any other source on the planet when it was previously thought to contain an insignificant amount. Since mercury is a poison, it could have serious health implications, ranging from impaired memory to vision problems if it gets out. ‘Now we’re trying to quantify the release of mercury and to see which regions are susceptible,’ said Dr Lantuit.
Eventually, the team hopes to come up with solutions to manage the effects of thawing permafrost. They’re developing models that should help. In one project, they are looking at what would happen if permafrost was the source of an outbreak of Anthrax – a bacteria that can infect the skin, lungs and intestines. They are also creating models to predict damage to infrastructure.
Improvements are already underway. Nunataryuk researchers have been working on developing buildings that can better resist thawing permafrost by getting communities in North America and Russia to exchange strategies. In North America, for example, there was a tendency to build lightweight constructions using wood or metal whereas buildings are made from concrete in Russia.
‘There is a move towards using some of the knowledge on both sides to create new and better infrastructure,’ said Dr Lantuit. ‘We now have 40 to 50 years of warming in some areas so we can really see what works and what doesn’t.’
The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please share it on social media.
Large amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane are being released from an Icelandic glacier, scientists have discovered.
A study of Sólheimajökull glacier, which flows from the active, ice-covered volcano Katla, shows that up to 41 tonnes of methane is being released through meltwaters every day during the summer months. This is roughly equivalent to the methane produced by more than 136,000 belching cows.
The Lancaster university-led research, which is featured in Scientific Reports, is the first published field study to show methane release from glaciers on this scale.
“This is a huge amount of methane lost from the glacial meltwater stream into the atmosphere,” said Dr Peter Wynn, a glacial biogeochemist from the Lancaster Environment Centre and corresponding author of the study. “It greatly exceeds average methane loss from non-glacial rivers to the atmosphere reported in the scientific literature. It rivals some of the world’s most methane-producing wetlands; and represents more than twenty times the known methane emissions of all Europe’s other volcanoes put together.”
Dr Wynn added: “Methane has a global warming potential 28 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2). It is therefore important that we know about different sources of methane being released to the atmosphere and how they might change in the future.
“There has been a lot of speculation about whether or not glaciers can release methane. The beds of glaciers contain the perfect cocktail of conditions for methane production – microbes, low oxygen, organic matter and water – along with an impermeable cap of ice on the surface trapping the methane beneath.
“However, nobody has thoroughly investigated this in the field before and this is the strongest evidence yet that glaciers are releasing methane.”
The study comes out of PhD research carried out by Dr Rebecca Burns when she was a graduate researcher at Lancaster University through the Centre for Global Eco-innovation, part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund.
Dr Burns took water samples from the edge of the melt water lake in front of the Sólheimajökull glacier and measured the methane concentrations, comparing them with methane levels in nearby sediments and other rivers, to make sure that the methane wasn’t being released from the surrounding landscape.
“The highest concentrations were found at the point where the river emerges from underneath the glacier and enters the lake. This demonstrates the methane must be sourced from beneath the glacier,” Dr Wynn explains.
Using a mass spectrometer, which identifies the unique ‘fingerprint’ of the methane, the researchers discovered the methane is coming from microbiological activity at the bed of the glacier. But there is still a connection with the volcano.
“We believe that while the volcano is not producing the methane, it is providing the conditions that allow the microbes to thrive and release methane into the surrounding meltwaters,” Said Dr Wynn.
Normally when methane comes into contact with oxygen it combines to form CO2, so the methane effectively disappears. On a glacier, meltwaters rich in dissolved oxygen access the bed of the ice mass and convert any methane present into carbon dioxide.
“Understanding the seasonal evolution of Sólheimajökull’s subglacial drainage system and how it interacts with the Katla geothermal area formed part of this work”, said Professor Fiona Tweed, an expert in glacier hydrology at Staffordshire University and co-author of the study.
At Sólheimajökull when the meltwater reaches the glacier bed, it comes into contact with gases produced by the Katla volcano. These gases lower the oxygen content of the water, meaning some of the methane produced by the microbes can be dissolved into the water and transported out of the glacier without being converted to CO2.
Dr Hugh Tuffen, a volcanologist at Lancaster University and co-author on the study, said: “The heat from Katla volcano may greatly accelerate the generation of microbial methane, so in fact you could see Katla as a giant microbial incubator.
“Scientists have also recently discovered that Katla emits vast amounts of CO2 – it’s in the top five globally in terms of CO2 emissions from volcanoes – so Katla is certainly a very interesting, very gassy volcano.”
“Both Iceland and Antarctica have many ice-covered, active volcanoes and geothermal systems,” said Dr Burns. “The recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report highlights that current trajectories indicate global warming is likely to reach 1.5oC between 2030 and 2052, with greatest perceived climate sensitivity at higher latitudes. If methane produced under these ice caps has a means of escaping as the ice thins, there is the chance we may see short term increases in the release of methane from ice masses into the future.”
Andri Stefánsson, Professor of Hydrothermal Geochemistry at the University of Iceland, who was not involved in the study said: “These findings provide important and new information on the origin and fluxes of methane at the Earth’s surface and the significance of this greenhouse gas to the atmosphere from such systems.
However, the researchers caution that it is still unclear how these effects will play out. They believe that although there could be a short-term spike of methane released while the glacier melts and thins, in the long-term the process could be self-limiting as, along with other reasons, without the ice the conditions for methane production are removed.
This research involved collaborative business partner Elementar UK Ltd. The analysis was undertaken in collaboration with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH). Methane isotope analysis was undertaken in the life sciences mass spectrometer facility (CEH) via NERC facility funding.
The other authors of the paper, ‘Direct isotopic evidence of biogenic methane production and efflux from beneath a temperate glacier’, are: Dr Rebecca Burns, Professor Phil Barker, Dr Hugh Tuffen, Dr Zheng Zhou, Miss M Stuart and Professor Nick Ostle, all from Lancaster University Dr Andy Stott, Dr Niall McNamara and Mr Simon Oakley from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. Prof Fiona Tweed at Staffordshire University. And Mr Aaron Chesler at the University of Maine, USA.
Concentrations differ from emissions in that they represent what remains in the atmosphere after some of the gases are absorbed by the seas, land and trees.
Since 1990 the warming impact of these long lived gases on the climate has increased by 41%.
How does the latest data compare to previous years?
2017 continues the rise in concentrations of CO2 which are now 46% greater than the levels in the atmosphere before the industrial revolution.
The increase from 2016 to 2017 was smaller than the rise from 2015 to 2016, but is close to the average growth rate seen over the last decade.
The scientists at the WMO believe that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere right now hasn’t been seen in a long, long time.
“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20 metres higher than now,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.
Why did CO2 concentrations not rise as fast in 2017?
That’s because of the impact of El Niño, the naturally occurring weather phenomenon which peaked in 2015 and 2016. This triggered droughts in some parts of the world, which in turn reduced the ability of forests and vegetation in these areas to soak up CO2, hence more of it stayed in the atmosphere.
Does that lower rise mean that some progress is being made?
Not so much. Scientists are very worried that when they measure the chemistry of the atmosphere they find that things are still going in the wrong direction.
“I am very concerned that the three greenhouse gases most responsible for climate change (CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide) are all rising upwards unabated,” said Prof Corinne Le Quéré from the University of East Anglia.
“CO2 concentrations are now well above 400ppm – levels were 321ppm when I was born, that is a big rise in a human lifetime!”
What about this mysterious CFC-11 gas?
There have been a number of reports about CFC-11, a gas that’s used in home insulation. Unfortunately, production is a real double whammy for the environment, damaging the ozone layer while also contributing to global warming.
Under the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the global agreement to protect the ozone layer, CFC-11 was supposed to be phased out of production.
Instead researchers have seen a marked slowdown in reductions in the level of this gas, indicating that someone, somewhere is making new batches.
Earlier this year, the Environmental Investigation Agency traced CFC-11 productionto a number of factories across China.
Scientists in the field are worried that the detected levels of this mysterious chemical may be a harbinger of worse things to come.
“It’s possible that the new emissions are the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr Matt Rigby, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Bristol.
“If the signals we’ve seen are due to CFC-11 released during the manufacture of products such as foams, there could be much more that has been locked up in these new materials, which will ultimately be released to the atmosphere over the coming decades.”
What about methane and nitrous oxide?
The news on these two gases is not good either. Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas, and about 60% of it in the atmosphere comes from human activities like cattle farming, rice cultivation and fossil fuel extraction.
Levels in the atmosphere are now about 1,859 parts per billion – 257% of what they were before the industrial revolution, and the rate of increase is pretty constant over the last decade.
Nitrous oxide comes from natural and human sources including fertiliser use and industry. It’s now about 122% of pre-industrial levels.
What are the implications of all these rises?
Essentially, they underline the fact that there is no sign in the atmosphere that efforts to cut greenhouse gases are having any success.
The report also highlights the fact that these gases can impact our climate for centuries after they have been emitted.
“CO2 remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and in the oceans for even longer,” said WMO Deputy Secretary-General Elena Manaenkova.
“There is currently no magic wand to remove all the excess CO2 from the atmosphere.
“Every fraction of a degree of global warming matters, and so does every part per million of greenhouse gases.”
Will this new study have any impact?
The scientists behind it certainly hope so. They believe that their analysis needs to be seen alongside the recent IPCC 1.5C report which warned that the world needed to be essentially carbon neutral by 2050.
The WMO bulletin comes out just a week or so before climate negotiators begin at the COP24 meeting in Katowice, Poland, where countries will discuss putting the Paris climate agreement into practice and increasing their ambitions when it comes to cutting warming gases.
“The new IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C shows that deep and rapid reductions of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will be needed in all sectors of society and the economy,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee.
“The WMO greenhouse gas bulletin, showing a continuing rising trend in concentrations of greenhouse gases, underlines just how urgent these emissions reductions are.”
This story first appeared on Clean Energy Wire 24 October 2018 | No matter how you look at it, people need sustenance to survive – and growing crops or raising livestock creates emissions. But Germany must find a way to reduce its agricultural emissions, which make up seven percent of total greenhouse gas emissions to […]
24 October 2018 | No matter how you look at it, people need sustenance to survive – and growing crops or raising livestock creates emissions. But Germany must find a way to reduce its agricultural emissions, which make up seven percent of total greenhouse gas emissions to reach its goal of carbon neutrality by mid-century, and to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s difficult to know which measures will be most effective, as cutting emissions in one area often creates emissions in another. Measures aimed at protecting the environment while also combatting climate change may seem like the perfect match, but they often harbour conflicts of interest.
A record hot and dry summer in Europe in 2018 stoked public debates about tackling climate change, while taking a heavy toll on farmers. The German grain harvest is expected to be 19 percent lower than the average of the last three years, and many farmers are now questioning whether they can sustain their herds through the winter.
In August, farmers called for state compensation, but this brought the debate back to climate change – some critics wondered aloud if modern intensive farming and monocultures may be ill-suited for the extreme weather climate change will bring. They also noted that all sectors of the economy are being called upon to help fulfil Germany’s goal of near carbon neutrality by 2050, and that agriculture, which makes up 7 percent of Germany’s greenhouse gas, will have to change as well.
German agriculture minister Julia Klöckner came to the farmers defence. “The one thing we shouldn’t do in this situation is to tell farmers ‘you are to blame for climate change’,” she said in August. “Climate change is a global phenomenon. […] And farming is also part of the solution.”
In its Climate Action Plan 2050 the government expects the agriculture sector to reduce its annual 65 million tonnes of CO2 by 34-31 percent over 1990. Although a wholly emission-free farming sector will never be possible, Germany must find a way to make changes in this area to reach its goals and to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement.
But which measures will be most effective? The highly diverse sources of emissions in the sector and the competing emphasis on other environmental aspects of farming, such as biodiversity, make choices unclear. Changes that cut emissions in one area could end up creating emissions in another. Reducing livestock may lead to sourcing from abroad, for example, or turning arable land into grasslands may bring food scarcity in the future, if climate change reduces crop yields – a spectre raised by last summer’s heat wave.
Global emissions from farming make up 11 percent of total emissions. This is similar in many developed countries, with 9 percent in the United States (2016) and as high as 17 percent (2017) in France, which boasts Europe’s largest farming sector. Both the US and France have seen rising or stable farming emissions since 1990, while Germany’s have decreased by almost 18 percent, due mainly to the closure of many farms in eastern Germany after reunification.
“Compared to the energy or industry sectors, emissions from agriculture are small – which doesn’t mean we cannot still get better,” Klöckner, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU), said in August.
But a broader view of the food supply chain shows a different picture. The typical diet of one German creates around 1.75 tonnes of CO2 per person a year, almost as high as transportation emissions, the environment ministry says. Emissions from the food supply chain (including farming of crops and animals (in Germany and abroad), fertiliser production, transport of goods, food retail and food preparation equal 25 percent of Germany’s total greenhouse gasemissions, although they are not all emitted in Germany, the Scientific Advisory Board on Agricultural Policy, Food and Consumer Health Protection (WBAE) and the Scientific Advisory Board on Forest Policy (WBW) have calculated.
Emissions-cutting measures in the farming sector
Concrete measures to fulfil emissions-reduction targets are chronically difficult to pin down in the farming industry. This is partially due to the sector’s very diverse emissions – from animal husbandry, arable soils, moorlands and the use of mineral fertilisers, to name just some major sources of greenhouse gases. In addition, other farming issues tend to eclipse agriculture emissions in the public debate – such as such as heavy use of single crops, or monocultures, and the loss of biodiversity.
The European Union’s Greening measures introduced in 2014 (e.g. crop diversification, fallow land, buffer strips, catch crops, maintaining permanent grasslands), alongside organic farming methods, are mainly aimed at protecting natural resources and biodiversity and improving conditions in livestock farming. Almost as an afterthought, they are automatically understood to also be “good for the climate”, although the whole system of farming subsidies is not at all coherent with either climate or environmental protection targets, Angelika Lischka, consultant for agriculture policy at the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), says.
The German Farmers‘ Association (Deutscher Bauernverband – DBV) says the environmental measures in EU farming policies “could have achieved more”. “But red tape and a lack of flexibility and tolerance for agricultural enterprises have made the application of certain greening measures impossible”. “When some greening measures were defined at European level, the focus was on controllability rather than practicability,” according to Steffen Pingen head of the environment department at the DBV.
The idea of using the same measures to simultaneously protect natural resources and mitigate climate change may seem like the perfect solution. But a closer look reveals trade-offs and conflicting interests.
While environmentalists and climate activists want changes to Germany’s meat production and export practices, a stop to large-scale soy bean imports and more organic farming, conventional farmers and government advisors maintain that only intensive farming practices produce food with a smaller carbon footprint. Reducing production in Germany, they say, would not be beneficial to a growing global population or would simply lead to moving production abroad (carbon leakage).
Another bone of contention is the climate impact of bioenergy. Farmers highlight the CO2 savings from the increased cultivation of crops used to generate electricity, claiming this contributes to curbing climate change. Germany has some 9,000 biogas plants, typically operated by farmers and covering 7 percent of Germany’s power generation. Many environmental and climate activists, on the other hand, dispute its positive climate effects (depending on the kind of energy crop and where it is produced) and criticise monocultures and land consumption for non-edible crops. The government, seeing the increased conflict over land for food crops, grassland or energy plants, put a stop to any further increase in power generation from biogas in 2016.
Could less meat and trade reduction be the solution?
37.5 percent (24.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents in 2016) of agricultural emissions come directly from methane emissions of animals farmed in Germany, mostly from cattle and dairy cows. Other livestock such as swine and poultry don’t emit as much directly (unlike cows, they aren’t ruminants and don’t emit much methane), but they cause emissions through land-use for feeding, barn emissions and manure.
Environmentalists would like to downsize the livestock sector in Germany, ideally in combination with higher prices for meat and fewer exports. Last summer’s heat wave that severely curtailed the hay and maize harvest led farmers to consider reducing their herds, a move welcomed by environmentalists.
Animal farming is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in Germany’s agriculture sector. Illustration: Mwelwa Musonko.
(See a CLEW article on meat consumption and agri-food exports here.)
Indeed, meat consumption is declining in Germany, providing another argument for raising less livestock. But neither the government nor farmer’s associations have made the step towards advocating a more vegetarian diet. “It is not a successful strategy to patronise German consumers and tell them to change their preferences when it comes to meat-eating,” Steffen Pingen, head of the environment department at the DBV says. “We are pursuing the goal of producing agricultural products as climate-efficiently as possible.”
The Climate Action Plan 2050, which doesn’t mention reducing cattle numbers, foresees lower emissions from livestock farming mainly through efficiency gains and voluntary best practice rules on how to feed and keep cows and cattle, the farmers say.
In the meantime, German farmers produce more meat than people in the country can eat. The overall self-supply with beef in Germany is on average 108 percent (2013-2015), 118 percent for pork and 125 percent for milk products.
Climate activists at Germanwatch point not only to the domestic consumption of meat and dairy but also to the large exports of animal products from Germany and related imports of fodder like soy beans as large emitters of greenhouse gases.
Germany is both the world’s third-largest exporter and importer of agriculture products, according to 2015 WTO figures. Since 2000, exports and imports have grown continuously. One third of Germany’s farming products are exported. The ministry for agriculture pursues a pro-export strategy, supported with 8.8 million euros in 2017.
Source: WTO, World Trade Statistical Review 2018
According to calculations by consultancies adelphi and systain, Germany is now using some 22 million hectares of land globally for its food retail trade.
Around 27 percent of the raw protein needed for German farm animals is covered by soy bean products, of which 75 percent are imported, mostly from South America, the agriculture ministry reports. Between 1997 and 2018, global land use for growing soy beans has nearly doubled. In 2010 Germany was using some 6.4 million hectares of soybeans abroad, out of 130 million worldwide, to feed its livestock.
Steffen Pingen at the German farmers’ association says no German farmer specifically produces to export – but that since the world market for farming products was determining prices, they still had to be competitive there. Since more efficient farming methods can reduce emissions per food unit, farmers in Germany argue that it is beneficial for the climate if everything is produced where it thrives best, i.e. where natural conditions are favourable. “That is why wheat should be grown in Germany and soy beans in South America,” Pingen said, a view that is backed by the agriculture ministry in this report.
Harald Grethe, professor for International Agricultural Trade and Development at the Humboldt University Berlin and chairman of the WBAE, pointed out that the food that Germany no longer exports has to be grown elsewhere, which could result in higher emissions overall if done on grasslands, savannah or former forest areas. “But of course if Germans were to change to a more sustainable diet, it would be possible to farm the existing arable land less intensively and therefore in a more climate friendly manner.”
Reinhild Benning, Senior Advisor for Agriculture and Livestock at Germanwatch, says that a solution would be to grow more leguminous plants at home, such as beans, trefoil-grass, or lupines, which are classic protein sources. Substituting soy bean imports would not only cut down freight emissions and help preserve forests and savannahs in South America, but also reduce the need for synthetic fertilisers because of their natural nitrogen-fixing abilities.
The WBAE says limiting synthetic fertilisers (nitrogen) could curb annual emissions by 5.8 million CO2 equivalents (out of the 65 million tonnes coming from the farming sector). This could be achieved by improving production technologies, better planning fertiliser use and optimising farming methods to reach similar harvests with less fertiliser.
Leguminous plants however, which receive 6 million euros per year as part of the government’s “protein plant strategy”, only help prevent global warming if they don’t replace more productive plants like maize or wheat, the WBAE report finds.
When it comes to limiting synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use, Germany is not adhering to its own N2O reduction targets. By 2010 the nitrogen surplus should have been reduced to 80 kg of nitrogen per hectare (kg/ha), but has been closer to 100 kg/ha or higher in recent years. The 2030 target is 70 kg/ha. “The latest reform of the fertiliser law is not ambitious enough,” says Benning from Germanwatch. “Climate and water protection seem not as important to the government as meat and milk exports.”
Organic farmers who uses legumes, intercropping and more frequent crop rotation because synthetic fertilisers are not allowed, say their way of farming is far more climate friendly, also with regard to laughing gas emissions and other soil emissions.
Organic farmers apply a more varied crop rotation and herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilisers are forbidden. More gentle ploughing methods and crop choices help to build up a humus layer in the soil which is known to be a carbon sink.
The “4 per 1000” initiative, which Germany joined at the 2015 UN Climate Summit in Paris, aims to increase the soil carbon stocks by 4 percent every year in order to offset the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Because of their sustainable approach, organic farms emit much less greenhouse gas than conventional farming operations, Benning from Germanwatchsays.
But government advisors from the WBAE say this is only partially true. While a reduced use of mineral fertiliser, more leguminous plants in the crop rotation, smaller herds and grassland protection through outdoor animal husbandry usually lead to considerably lower emissions per hectare, the carbon footprint of organic produce isn’t always smaller.
As organic farmers produce less crops and meat per hectare, only those farms with a high share of leguminous plants and 80 percent of the yields of conventional farms actually achieve smaller carbon footprints, the scientists write. As a rule, “organic farming cannot be recommended as a climate protection measure”, they conclude.
However, in the same year as the WBAE report, the environment ministry published advice showing organic food generally has a smaller carbon footprint.
The WWF, on the other hand, lists studies that show making farming in the EU 100-percent organic would reduce emissions from this sector by 35 percent. Combined with gentle ploughing techniques, organic farming could turn soils in Germany from a net emitter to a net sink for carbon, the organisation says.
Organic farms have around 25 percent smaller yields than conventional farms. The farmers’ association sees this as another reason why expanding organic farming for climate purposes isn’t the way to go.
“If we don’t lower our food consumption, this would mean that having only organic farms would require 20 to 30 percent more land to grow the same amount of food. This use of more land would lead to more greenhouse gas emissions,” the WBAE’s Grethe explains.
Protecting grassland and moorlands
But even the WBAE says that grasslands, which can store up to 50 percent more CO2 than farmed fields, are often better preserved by organic farmers who use it to graze their animals and harvest their own fodder, in particular trefoil-grass.
Instead of protecting this valuable carbon sink, since 1991 Germany has lost over 600,000 hectares of grassland, mainly due to an increased demand for bioenergy (biogas and biofuels) and fodder plants like maize and rapeseed. This has led to annual greenhouse gas emissions of 2.5-3.1 million tonnes of CO2equivalents, according to the WBAE.
Farmers see the increased cultivation of energy crops and their use to generate electricity as a contribution to climate action. The government however, seeing the increased conflict over land for food crops, grassland or energy plants, put a stop to any further increase in power generation from biogas in 2016.
In order to reduce the competition for land between solar panels and crop fields, large ground-mounted systems may generally only be installed on land that is not suitable for arable farming.
Once lost, it is difficult to restore grassland sinks because it can take up to 200 years to restore the CO2-rich humus layer. The most climate-relevant move would therefore be to protect the remaining grasslands, the WBAE concludes.
Although the surface area of grassland has grown a little since 2013, environmentalists say that German and European farming subsidies are not helping the problem. In a bid to protect the remaining grassland, Brussels introduced a ban on turning any permanent grassland into croplands. Grassland is considered permanent if it has not been part of a farm’s crop rotation for five years or more – a reason for even environmentally aware farmers to plough their pastures every five years. “From a climate point of view this is completely insane. But how am I supposed to explain to my grandchildren that I basically lost arable land that they might need in the future to the permanent grassland status?” asks organic farmer and Green Party MP Friedrich Ostendorff.
Obviously farmers would want compensation for allowing land to undergo substantial cultivation restrictions, Grethe said. But even under existing rules, Germany could use the EU farming subsidies to introduce measures such as a “grazing premium”, which would reward farmers for using their pastures for animal grazing, thereby protecting these areas, he said.
A very similar issue affects moors and peatlands. Dry peat releases carbon and although only 5 percent of Germany’s farmland uses moorlands, these drained areas release 50 percent of soil-related greenhouse gas emissions and 5 percent of Germany’s total emissions.
Apart from preventing existing peatlands to be drained and farmed, drained areas could be restored and turned once more into carbon sinks, researchersand the Federal Environment Protection Agency (BfN) suggest. Another option, albeit with less carbon uptake potential, is the use of intensively used former peatlands as wetter, extensive grassland that could still be used as grazing grounds or for harvesting hay.
But the competition for land is high. “Limiting the amount of land farmers can cultivate by requiring a switch to extensive farming, moorland restoration or conversion into permanent grassland, definitely means losses for the farmer and even amounts to dispossession,” Pingen of the DBV says. In addition, farmers say this could lead to carbon leakage issues – if less food is produced in Germany, production will move abroad instead and potentially cause higher emissions.
One compromise could be to thoroughly protect existing moorlands and only partially restore former peat lands so they are still usable as pastures.
Farming subsidies aren’t geared to preventing climate change
Climate friendly farming methods are available for livestock keeping, crop cultivation and on peat soils and grasslands. But Germany’s farmers are rarely obliged to comply with these best practices. In the absence of rules or incentives specifically geared towards running a climate friendly operation, their main concern is economic well-being, or in many cases simply the survival of their farm.
To conventional farmers, every new “greening” rule, every new obligation to improve animal welfare or be more conservative fertiliser use means a possible cut in income, be it through different land-use, mandatory investments or more time-consuming procedures.
”If the farmer shuts farm and stable, environmental regulations brought him down.” Slogan published by the German farmers’ association in a row with the environment ministry over stricter eco-rules. Source: DBV.
Farmers lament the bureaucracy of environmental protection and the fact that there are few rewards and instead only compensation for losses for such measures, Angelika Lischka at NABU says.
Around 38 percent of the European Union’s budget is used to subsides the agriculture sector in Europe. In 2016, every German farm received on average 15,300 euros in subsidies, depending on how much land they own. A small number of large farms (14.5%) received over 60 percent of the total direct payments.
Both the EU and the German government maintain that this is necessary to ensure that Europe produces enough food for its population and doesn’t become reliant on imports.
Both also say that “public money should be used for public goods”, meaning that the subsidies should be used to benefit the whole of society, through healthy food and an ecologically balanced and climate-friendly environment.
Greening rules were recently added to the complex subsidy allocation system that is the EU’s 58.8-billion-euro (2018) Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Since 2014, 30 percent of area-based subsidies under the CAP have been tied to compulsory measures such as diversifying crops, maintaining permanent grasslands or dedicating five percent of arable land as “ecological focus areas”. However, not only can farmers opt for the easiest and least effective measures, an evaluation of greening policies shows that the resulting environmental and climate protection effects have been minimal.
“A large share of these subsidies is flat rate and non-targeted. Germany uses some five billion euros in EU subsidies simply as direct payments to farmers according to how much land they farm,” Grethe says.
If subsidies flow to large recipients who produce meat for export purposes, if they use imported fodder like soy beans from Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, where former carbon sinks like forests or savannahs were turned into fields, then these million-dollar subsidies are lacking for farms that ensure, animal welfare and climate protection with fewer animals and regional fodder, Reinhild Benning from Germanwatch says.
The idea that all payments should be rewards for environmental, climate and other societal services would have to take hold much more deeply, in order to reform the system, Grethe said.
CO2 reduction costs in agriculture and costs for adaptation
Protecting or restoring moorlands and grasslands are two of the most effective but also the most expensive emission-saving measures in the agriculture sector. Reducing the use of mineral fertiliser doesn’t come cheap either, WBAE researchers calculate, but other efforts, especially those related to changing eating habits, could be cost-neutral or even save consumers money.
Meanwhile, a changing climate can also create costs, in particular through more frequent extreme weather events. Germany is projected to retain a benign and favourable climate or even better conditions for some plants due to rising average temperatures.
But in the summer of 2003 German farmers reported losses of 600 million euros due to drought, and a repeat in 2018, for which they requested a billion euros in compensation, show that drought resilience may be limited in Germany. In other years, too much rain has caused problems.
The same recipes that reduce agriculture emissions could make farmers more resilient, both the NABU and professor Frank Ewert from the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) say. “When cultivating a greater variety of crops, farmers will always have some crops that better withstand extreme weather than others,” Ewert said in an interview.
Keeping fewer animals and raising prices to a fair level would also help minimise the risk of extreme weather effects, NABU president Olaf Tschimpke said in a press release.
Other adaptation measures could be the introduction of (drip) irrigation to counteract decreasing amounts of rain in the summer months (ca. minus 21 percent by 2100), gentle soil cultivation methods or new, heat-resistant crops. However, all are likely to bring investment and/or operating costs and may not achieve sufficiently higher or stable harvests, a study for the German Environment Agency (UBA) found in 2012.
Since the majority of farming subsidies and rules are decided by the EU, all eyes will be on Brussels in the next two years, where the 365-billion-euro budget for the next CAP funding period of 2021-2027 will be decided. After the lacklustre performance of the last greening policies, the European Commission’s June 2018 proposition mentions a “new system of “conditionality” [that] will link all farmers’ income support to the application of environment- and climate-friendly farming practices”. Through this, 40 percent of the CAP’s overall budget “is expected to contribute to climate action”, the paper says.
“Unfortunately, no one knows what this 40 percent target actually means or how it has been calculated,” Angelika Lischka from NABU told the Clean Energy Wire, an assessment that is shared by the farmers’ association.
Germanwatch’s Benning fears the worst and hopes for the best. “Agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan basically says that every country may choose itself what kind of climate action measures it will pursue. But setting targets without explicitly tying every euro to a specific climate service has failed,” she says.
While participating in the CAP reform process at EU level, the German government has its domestic work in agriculture and climate policy cut out. In autumn 2019 the agriculture minister wants to present a new arable farming strategy; by 2021 the government wants to present a holistic strategy on how to reduce emissions from animal farming in Germany. And as a sector featuring in the Climate Action Plan 2050, agriculture will also have to be included in the climate protection law, due to be passed in 2019.
Rattled by the summer’s drought, farmer Friedrich Ostendorff senses that his colleagues are deeply concerned about the extreme weather. “The only good thing to come from this is that farmers talk to each other more again – simply because they don’t know what to do,” he told the Clean Energy Wire.
WBAE’s Grethe says: “Farmers’ willingness to operate in a more climate friendly way is high – if politicians provide for the necessary rules and rewards.”
At the end of August 2018 agriculture minister Julia Klöckner declared the summer’s drought a “weather event of a national scale”. “Climate change is here,” she said at a press conference where she offered 340 million euros in compensation to 10,000 farms whose existence is endangered. The reason: “Farmers, who literally produce the means for our survival, are not just any sector.”
Kerstine Appunn is a staff Correspondent for the Clean Energy Wire. She joined after working at the Schleswig-Holsteinischer Zeitungsverlag newspaper groups, where she covered general politics as well as energy and climate policy. She has an MSc in Global Environmental Change from King’s College London and a law degree from the University of Kiel. She has also worked as a consultant for the International Institute for Environment and Development in London.
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Beef burgers, ham sandwiches, cheese slices, yogurt, bread. A good amount of the food you might eat on a daily basis is likely to have come from just three U.S companies: Tyson, Cargill and Dairy Farmers of America.
And in addition to providing your breakfast, lunch and dinner, they are some of the world’s most-polluting companies.
The climate footprint of oil and gas giants such as Exxon Mobil, Shell and BP are well-known, but food companies have faced far less scrutiny. The world’s five largest meat and dairy companies combined, including Tyson, Cargill and Dairy Farmers of America, are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions every year than any of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies.
And in a week when international climate scientists have warned that the world is rapidly running out of time to reduce emissions and keep global warming to within 1.5 degrees Celsius, this matters more than ever.
So where does this mega climate footprint come from? The emissions cover everything from the production of crops to feed chickens, pigs and cows to the methane emissions released by burping cattle. Some less obvious emissions include those associated with farm machinery fuel and the production of chemicals and other inputs needed to grow grain, palm oil and other food crops.
The food sector as a whole is estimated to be responsible for as much as 29 percent of global man-made greenhouse gas emissions. But meat and dairy account for the vast majority of those emissions. A major study published this week says U.K. and U.S. citizens need to cut consumption of beef by 90 percent and consumption of milk by 60 percent to keep global warming at or below 2 degrees Celsius.
Cargill and Tyson have set themselves targets for reducing emissions, and Dairy Farmers of America told HuffPost that it plans to set emission-reduction targets by the middle of 2019. But environmental campaigners say this will not be enough to help the world avoid dangerous climate change.
“I don’t really expect any of these companies to make changes on their own,” said Devlin Kuyek, senior researcher at the nonprofit group GRAIN. “They are wholly committed to growing sales of meat and dairy.”
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Although it does not yet have any reduction targets, Dairy Farmers of America acknowledged its climate impact. “We market a lot of milk so we recognize that our footprint is large, but it also means our opportunity for change is large,” said David Darr, vice president of sustainability.
The current emission-reduction targets being set by food companies may not be enough to avoid global warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, but they are nonetheless an important step, says Nate Aden, a climate adviser at the World Resources Institute. He says setting regular targets to reduce climate emissions has served as a “way to hold accountable people who won’t be around at the company in 2050.”
Cargill admits its emission targets exclude byproducts generated by animals before they are slaughtered and processed into meat, including their feed and methane emissions ― which account for roughly 90 percent of the company’s total emissions. A spokesperson said Cargill is developing more “sustainable ways to manufacture feed and improve its nutritional and feed conversion value” in an effort to reduce methane emissions from livestock.
Tyson says its targets do include emissions from animals. Aden says the company is likely to try to meet these by switching more of its business out of beef production into pork and chicken, which have a lower environmental impact. Tyson has also bought a stake in the meat alternatives company Beyond Meat, although Kuyek said he believes this is “more of a hedge than a real bet” away from meat.
So does the huge climate footprint of meat and dairy mean we cannot eat any livestock products at all? Not exactly, says Shefali Sharma, a director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a research nonprofit, and author of a report exposing the climate footprint of the food companies.
“We’re not saying don’t eat meat. But it is the scale that we eat and the dominant model of how it is produced,” Sharma said. “That’s the industrial meat and dairy model where a whole lot of feed is fed to a whole lot of animals to produce cheap meat where all the externalities like environmental impact and health are not accounted for.”
With President Donald Trump pulling the U.S. out of the global agreement on tackling climate change, it seems unlikely that externalities like climate emissions will be mitigated via regulation or tax anytime soon.
But Aden says companies could fill that gap and show it’s possible to thrive economically while reducing emissions. Something like this is already happening with the Science Based Targets initiative jointly run by WRI, the United Nations and the World Wide Fund for Nature. It’s a voluntary scheme that allows companies to set emission-reduction targets in keeping with the pace recommended by climate scientists to limit the worst effects of climate change.
“We are not giving an opinion on whether a meat company should or should not exist,” Aden said. “We want to show companies can cut emissions and [we’re] showing how. We’re laying the groundwork so that if we have a major climate crisis we have the tools and examples for when we do have the political capital to act.”
All companies ― whether involved in food, gas, clothes or electrics ― need to make reducing climate emissions part of their business plans, Sharma said.
“I think companies really need to get their heads around what role they want to play in dealing with climate change,” she said. “They have to think about what growth model they can pursue that avoids more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming and meets 21st-century needs.”
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