To Curb Methane, Put Cows on a Diet
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Much was made of methane at COP26 in Glasgow this week. More than 100 countries signed on to the Global Methane Pledge advanced by the Biden administration, which calls for slashing this potent greenhouse gas by 30% in less than a decade. Some critics dismissed the pact as a non-binding frivolity, while others including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, applauded methane cuts. It's “one of the most effective things we can do to reduce near-term global warming and keep 1.5 degrees Celsius,” she said. “It is the lowest-hanging fruit.”
President Joe Biden’s focus on voluntary reductions is, in fact, more consequential than it may seem. It's a creative way to get big results fast with little economic impact, and it brings agriculture to the table in an important way for the first time at a United Nations Climate Change Conference. Yet Biden’s war on methane is missing key components — most notably, nitrous oxide, another overlooked greenhouse gas that’s as much as 15 times more potent than methane.
Methane accounts for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., while nitrous oxide accounts for nearly as much — about 7%. Cutting both these pollutants can bring radical environmental benefits at relatively little economic cost. And in both cases, agriculture (not the energy industry, which comes in second) is the biggest culprit. Livestock production practices and the overuse of agrochemicals derived from fossil fuels produce the lion’s share of global methane and nitrous oxide emissions.
With its behemoth agriculture industry, the U.S. must lead the way: American industry leaders should be required by Biden's U.S. Department of Agriculture to surpass the COP26 goal, cutting methane and nitrous oxide from their production by no less than half by 2030 — blazing a path on agricultural solutions to climate change for the rest of the world.
Let’s break down agriculture’s role further: About 40% of methane emissions in the U.S. comes from livestock production — specifically, from enteric fermentation (also known as cow burps) and manure; less than a third comes from natural gas and petroleum production, and 15% comes from landfills. Yet as Biden announced a plan to restore an Environment Protection Agency rule cut by the Trump administration that regulates methane leaks in oil production, and expand it to include gas production, he offered no such plan to require livestock producers to manage their methane.
He should have. Solutions are growing in this space: A range of new pellets and chemical supplements are emerging from companies such as the Swiss start-up Mootral and the Dutch firm, Koninklijke DSM N.V., that function like Gas-X for cows. Moreover, basic dietary changes for cows can alter their digestive chemistry and reduce their belching and flatulence. Consumers can also apply pressure to the industry by continuing to choose plant-based meats over animal meats until the livestock producers cope with their emissions problem.
As for nitrous oxide (also commonly known as laughing gas), emissions derive largely from the overapplication of agrochemicals, especially fertilizers, on farmlands. Chemicals that don’t absorb into the soil atomize into the atmosphere and become nitrous oxide. Recent advances in precision agriculture tools and a major expansion of regenerative farming practices can rein in the prodigious overuse of agrochemicals — improving soil health and the sustainability of food production long-term, while also curbing climate change.
The U.S has one of the most livestock-centered and petrochemically intensive food systems in the world. As the Biden administration helms a global campaign for countries to voluntarily reduce methane, it should expand the effort to include nitrous oxide and mount a mandatory push at home. Livestock producers must be required to ratchet down their methane emissions and crop producers to rein in their use of fertilizers that are fueling climate change.
This is just the beginning for agriculture, an industry that is arguably more important than energy and transportation in the quest to solve climate change, because farmers can do more than reduce CO2 emissions, they can eventually reverse them via crop and soil carbon sequestration.
For now, while it’s true that the Biden administration’s Global Methane Pledge is not much more than window dressing, it should send a clear message to industry leaders: Agriculture needs a seat at the climate negotiations table, and ag leaders need to start by cutting these two overlooked pollutants that together comprise nearly a fifth of planet-warming gasses.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University, and the author of "The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World."
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