Easy targets

High-income nations across the world appear focused on agriculture as the sector to enforce emissions cut for meeting national climate goals

By Shagun
Published: Friday 01 December 2023
A media report on the Irish government's proposal to cull nearly 200,000 cows to meet the country's climate targets led to farmer protests across the country in June-September this year (Photograph courtesy: IFA)_

Ireland is in the throes of a nationwide farmer protest. On May 29, a media report revealed that the government was deliberating plans to cull some 200,000 cows over the course of three years, at an yearly cost of €200 million (around US $211.5 million) to be paid to farmers as compensation, for meeting the country’s climate emission goals. The news triggered large-scale farmer protests, which continued till September, despite a government clarification that the numbers were just an estimate in a modelling paper and not a final plan ready for implementation.

High-income nations across the world seem to have chosen agriculture as a priority sector to enforce emissions cut for meeting their national climate targets. Since last year, at least half a dozen countries have taken, or are planning to take, steps to curb farm sector emissions. These include the Netherlands, New Zealand and Canada.

Methane (from livestock belching, flatulence and dung) and nitrous oxide (from nitrogen fertilisers) are the two main greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the agriculture sector. Emissions and storage from soil carbon (which is counted in land use) and farm energy use are not counted as part of agricultural emissions. As per US Environmental Protection Agency, methane and nitrous oxide account for 16 per cent and 6 per cent of global GHGS.

There are two main multilateral treaties to deal with agricultural emissions. First is the Global Methane Pledge (GMP), which has been signed by 149 countries since its launch in 2021 at the Conference of the Parties (COP) to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change held at Glasgow, Ireland. The signatory nations have pledged to cut methane emissions by 25 per cent by 2030 compared to 2020 levels. Second is the European Green Deal, a Europe-specific treaty announced in 2020 and signed by 27 countries, which are required to reduce their GHG emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. A Nature Restoration Law, passed this July under the deal, aims to restore and recover nature on at least 20 per cent of EU land and sea area by 2030, through binding targets relating to habitat and species restoration.

Most of the actions taken by countries to curb farm sector emissions are in pursuance to meet their targets under these treaties. Experts, however, say the plans are unlikely to help and difficult to implement. “It’s irresponsible to make announcements or calls to cull animals without understanding its potential impacts on farmer prosperity, farmer incomes and nutrition. Given the current trajectory we are on, I do not think we are going to meet the deadline of 2030 that coun-tries have set,” Joseph Mcfadden, associate professor of dairy cattle biology at College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University, tells Down To Earth, in his response to Global Methane Pledge.

Sieta van Keimpema, a farm leader and former president of European Milk Board, an umbrella organisation of 21 dairy farmer association from 16 countries, claims the agriculture sector contributed to reduction of 65 per cent nitrogen emissions in 2022, “but transport and industry have not done anything.”

It is inaccurate to hold agriculture singularly responsible for methane release. Research has established that methane from fossil fuels is severely underestimated.

Methane is of two main types — biogenic (produced from plants and animals) and fossil (which has been locked up underground for millions of years). Biogenic methane has an atmospheric life of about a decade, before it becomes car-bon dioxide (CO2,) and is taken up by plants again, followed by the same cycle of plants being eaten by animals. Methane from fossil fuels, on the other hand, adds CO2, to the atmosphere. It is linked with leaks from coal mining and flaring from oil and gas drilling, transport of fossil fuels, and natural sources like onshore seeps.

Kevin Trenberth, a scientist and honorary academic at the department of physics, Auckland University, New Zealand, says that because of its circular life, biogenic methane should be considered separate from fossil methane when determining how to manage emissions to reach net zero by 2050. “Methane starts off as carbon dioxide and ends with it... So, it’s circular... as long as the numbers of livestock are not increasing, the methane should remain the same. The problem is increasing numbers of livestock and this is partly what has happened in the tropics, places like Amazon, Indonesia... There has been deforestation, turning them into pastures, increases in numbers of livestock... so there is some increase in methane,” he tells DTE.

In contrast, fossil methane is fugitive and adds net CO2. “There are a lot of mines around the world which have not properly closed down and are leaking methane. The key thing is this is fossil which comes out of the ground as methane and when it gets burned or used for any purposes, it ultimately ends up as CO2, and increases the CO2 in the atmosphere. And that’s a net increase and not circular,” he explains.

Scientists also argue that contributions of long-lived pollutants like CO2 should be separated from short-lived ones like methane while fixing emission targets. Iain Wright, deputy director of general research and development at the Inter-national Livestock Research Institute, Kenya, says that instead of one-size-fits-all approach, governments should distinguish between carbon-neutral systems like grasslands and intensive industrial agriculture. “Animals are a part of a system and instead of just looking at them as emitters, we should look at the net contributions,” he tells DTE.

Animal products make a substantial contribution to food security, providing protein and micro-nutrients. It is projected that by 2050, the global demand for animal products will increase by 60 to 70 per cent. Contrast this with the reduction in farm sizes and livestock, which will affect food production. A 2021 technical report by the European Commission says that measures under the Green Deal will decrease meat supply by 14 per cent and raw milk supply by 10 per cent. Wright warns that policies to curb livestock numbers could lead to countries increasing their imports. “If countries like Ireland start importing meat products from Brazil, where already forests are being cut for pasturelands, that just means shifting the problem around the globe and not reducing it,” he says. In 2022, Ireland imported 54,000 tonnes of beef, according to data from its parliament debates. Moreover, in countries like New Zealand, which mostly have arable soil, crop farming is not suitable and livestock farming is the only way.

Other solutions?

Wright says that instead of focusing on just one aspect, countries should work on a basket of solutions and advance research in technologies, like feed additives, that reduce GHG emissions. “We know it is possible to breed animals that produce less emissions, but this is yet to be applied to practise... The countries should also accelerate investment in these technologies,” he says.

Speaking at COP27 in 2022, US Deputy Special Envoy for Climate, Rick Duke, said that less than 2 per cent of climate finance is used to develop methane-mitigation solutions, like regulatory registration of feed additives. Such technologies are still nascent or with the private sector. “There are a lot of benefits to reducing methane. This can still happen in ruminant production systems. We need to prioritise those technologies so we can keep ruminant systems as part of our livelihood,” Macfadden says.


Announcements or plans declared by countries since 2022 to curb greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and agriculture


News reports in August 2023 say the Danish government is considering taxing beef products to cut CO2 emissions


In August 2022, Canada announced a voluntary plan for farmers to reduce use of nitrogen fertiliser to cut the country’s nitrogen emissions by 30 per cent below 2020 levels by 2030


In May 2022, media report revealed that the government was deliberating plans to cull some 200,000 cows over three years, at an yearly cost of €200 million to be paid to farmers as compensation


In June 2022, the Netherlands announced a plan to cut nitrogen emissions 50% by 2030. Since then, farmers have held protests by blocking roads and supermarket distribution centres with tractors and trucks, dumping manure on highways and setting hay bales on fire


In June 2022, the government announced a tax on cow emissions (based on factors like the number of animals kept, the size of the farm and the type of fertiliser used) from 2025


Since February 2022, the country is implementing a €200 million-scheme for pig farms to reduce or entirely close their production capacity to cut nitrogen emissions in the agricultural sector


Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas (GHG) after carbon dioxide (CO2), accounting for 20 per cent of global emissions. It is 25 times potent than CO2, but short-lived and is responsible for about half of the net rise in global average temperature since the pre-industrial era.

Methane from livestock originates as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is taken up by grass and other plants during photosynthesis. These plants are eaten by animals, who then burp methane during digestion, or release it as flatulence. The gas is also released through decaying manure. About 32 per cent of global anthropogenic methane come from microbial processes that occur during the enteric fermentation of ruminant livestock and manure management systems, while oil and gas operations contribute about 63 per cent.

This was first published in the 1-15 November, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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