Carbon

Should ruminant emissions be regarded as “man-made”?

Adam Coffey, 13/12/2022

In this contributed article, Central Queensland producer Adam Coffey gives an explainer on how livestock emissions are measured and highlights some of the shortcomings he sees in how the metrics are used. Mr Coffey is also on the newly-elected Cattle Australia board and sits on the AgForce cattle board. Opinions expressed in this item are his own.

 

 

 

THE question of whether ruminant animal emissions should be regarded as anthropogenic (man-made) has been puzzling me for some time.

When considering country specific or global carbon emissions, ruminant emissions are accounted for under the same methodology as the energy sector; included alongside fossil fuels, electricity, transport etc.

Using a linear method to quantify GHG emissions seems obvious; measure the gas coming out of a trucks’ exhaust, stick a cow in a box and see what she belches…simple.

However, there is also an argument around considering biogenic methane vs fossil sources, and even a growing criticism of global greenhouse gas (GHG) accounting methods for not presenting the true picture.

Methane exists in the atmosphere for a relatively short period before it is broken down into carbon dioxide through hydroxyl oxidation. This carbon dioxide is then absorbed by plants through photosynthesis which is utilised by the plant to build biomass, with oxygen being released back to the atmosphere.

Increasing emphasis is being placed on developing metrics to better understand this status quo, with many suggesting that ruminants in fact do not increase emissions in a net sense due to the cyclical nature of biogenic methane.

Most naturally occurring emissions are not included in national accounts such as wildfires, swamps, plant decomposition and respiration etc. These emissions are regarded as “fast carbon cycling”.  Bushfires, for example, will result in large emissions in a short space of time, with vegetation then able to recapture that carbon as it recovers and grows. On the contrary, fossil fuel emissions are new or additional to the atmosphere, having been stored for millennia and utilised to supply the energy needs for our growing population.

So, why do we regard ruminant emissions as anthropogenic if they follow the same basic cyclical principals of other natural fast carbon cycles?

Land-use change for primary production is a factor for consideration.

However, determining accurate sequestration metrics of remnant vegetation to compare to developed agricultural land is complex.

The 2019 Australian Government Greenhouse Inventory Report shows that forests have expanded to a similar level as in the early 90’s, and that Australian grasslands are actually in decline.

Graziers have also developed a much better general understanding of the importance of vegetation in landscapes, recognising biodiversity has benefits for both the environment and production.

The 2020 Australian summer bushfires emitted around 715 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is staggering when that figure is stacked against Australia’s recent total emissions of between 400-500 million tonnes per annum.

Research suggests that it may take these forests some 20 years to pull that carbon back in through regrowth.

Bushfires also release methane in addition to carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. High intensity crown fires are estimated to emit double the methane of cooler, ground level burns which again highlights ruminants’ ability to mitigate fire risk and offset further potential emissions.

There have been numerous critics of international GHG accounting methods

Research has shown that globally we have merely substituted wild herbivores for domesticated animals over time, so where is the net emissions increase?

Although Australia didn’t evolve with cloven hooved animals, they are here to stay.

If we remove domestic grazing animals from the Australian landscape what happens to the vast amounts of plant fibre we produce? It will either rot and/or more likely burn in the Australian landscape, leading to further atmospheric emissions and catastrophic loss of biodiversity.

There have been numerous critics of international GHG accounting methods, one being

Keith P. Shine who was the lead author on The First Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  He was instrumental in developing GHG metrics some 30 years ago and is now critical of the GWP100 method which has been widely adopted across the globe. He argues that the method does not address the nature of short-lived gasses and they are being unfairly penalised.

Much emphasis within the red meat industry is being placed on improving the productivity of livestock and landscapes. In Central Queensland, emerging soil carbon sequestration data from one large grazing enterprise suggests that over a five-year period for every kilogram of beef produced and sold, 50kg of carbon has been sequestered in the soil. These five years included two of the driest years in living memory, proving that agricultural soils have huge future potential to remove and store vast amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.

There is a recent and alarming concept of “insetting” rather than “offsetting” our carbon stocks to allow us to maintain market access further down the supply chain due to ESG investment pressure. This means that those who have the legitimate ability to sequester carbon in the landscape (really only agriculture and forestry) are faced with the cost of measurement and losing the ability to be rewarded for environmentally positive practices due to dubious claims about the negative climate impacts of their product.

The Australian beef industry has been proactive in regard to its emissions, setting the CN30 initiative in 2017 to be carbon neutral by 2030.

We should be pushing back hard on increasing government regulation

There has been some great work undertaken in this space but it’s unfortunate that the main focus has been placed on developing products to attempt to directly mitigate methane emissions, such as feed additives.

In the event we bring to market product/s that show a material methane reduction, who will ultimately pay for them? Much like having to retain our ACCU’s generated through soil and vegetation sequestration to maintain market access, the cost of supplements will be pushed onto the producer. In the mad scramble for a “silver bullet” we’ve mainly lost sight of the fact that ruminant emissions are cyclical.

We should be pushing back hard on increasing government regulation and rhetoric that we have a problem that must be solved.

The Methane Pledge recently signed by our federal government aims to specifically address anthropogenic emissions. It is an ‘aspirational’ target and unlike New Zealand or the Netherlands, there is currently no talk of taxing livestock emissions or reducing ruminant numbers. However this is the path we are on if we continue to account for emissions in a linear fashion.

If methane mitigation products are limited in their ability to reduce individual animal emissions then ultimately the only other solution under current GHG accounting methods is to reduce livestock numbers.

Perhaps it’s time we all took a collective pause in the mad rush towards climate neutrality and asked ourselves if in fact, with fairer metrics regarding short-lived atmospheric gasses, we are already well and truly there.

We need industry leaders to advocate to government and the wider community for an emissions accounting framework that more accurately reflects the biogenic methane cycle.

We can be proud that we have a world leading red meat industry that continues to innovate to ensure we produce human edible protein in the most sustainable and ethical manner.

We will keep building on our environmental credentials and prove that we continue to be part of the climate solution.

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. David+Dwyer, 01/02/2023

    The thought that there will be a silver bullet to reduce entric methane from ruminants is what many see as a solution. The reality is best practice grazing management ( specific to the country you are grazing ) is the solution. Yes, the narrative has been hijacked and voices like Adam’s go a long way to point us back in the right direction.

  2. George Mack, 10/01/2023

    Adam, Thank you for your comments. I am so pleased you are on the new Cattle Australia Board. We have too many agricultural leaders prepared to accept we have obligations to meet under various Government agreements instead of calling out the rubbish a lot of it is.

  3. Sam, 03/01/2023

    Great job Adam, couldn’t agree more.

  4. Erica Halliday, 01/01/2023

    The witch hunt over cows just blows my mind. Not only is it severely misguided and unfair (cows have not increased their rate of emissions over millennia) but the irony is that cows and other grass eating ruminants can not only be carbon neutral but net sequesters of carbon.

    If we stop all industry and emissions tomorrow it is predicted to take 100 years for the levels of C02 to get back to pre industrial levels but here we have a natural solution that actually sucks the C02 from the sky and buries it deep in the soil- using cows- how are we not so excited by this prospect ??? Why can we not see that cows are actually a critical, natural and sustainable part of the solution?

    How? The natural way is to increase the plants rate of photosynthesis. To do this they need to be fertilised and pruned. We can either get a machine to do this or we can used large mobs of ruminants who prune the plants and fertilise them so they grow and photosynthesise more.

    People may argue that we can’t do it on a large enough scale but if we took every corn, wheat and soybean plot that lies bare, fallow and oxidising for 9 mths of the year and planted grass or cover crops and grazed them then we could increase the rate of photosynthesis exponentially and solve the worlds protein shortage at the same time.

    The upsides are huge and scalable. Carbon in the air as either carbon dioxide or methane are Green house gases and in excess do harm, while carbon in the soil is the ultimate good guy increasing water holding capacity and feeding microbes which in turn provide natural and sustainable nutrients to plants. Not only is this sustainable but makes the land less vulnerable to drought and floods.

    Grass is the most plentiful plant in the world and yet humans can’t eat it- yet cattle can and they can upgrade it into the most nutrient dense form of protein on the planet.

    The most natural, nutrient dense form of protein on the planet, whose production creates a net carbon synch. How can this not be the biggest breakthrough of our age.?

  5. Jean Commins, 16/12/2022

    A good article, however the industry has stupidly agreed to the pledge, so that is agreeing to ones guilt but trying for a lesser sentence.
    Climate Change is not about science it is about weakening the middle classes so that the economy can be bureaucratically controlled. This has happened before in history. The bureaucratisation of food in the Ukraine caused millions of people to starve resulting in people eating one another. Once the bureaucracy took over the food supply chain and there was a drought they demanded no grain be stored for future plantings resulting in low harvest volumes, farmers were shot for not delivering tonnages and eventually many farmers walked away. The bureaucracy then rounded up people off the street to go farming with not enough skills or tools resulting in starvation of millions.

  6. Fred Wehl, 15/12/2022

    Thank you Adam for your thought provoking comments and I agree that we need to push back hard against further complex regulation. If I may add a couple of thoughts.
    The democratic world has introduced climate policies which plan to impact out to 2030 ,2040 and 2050 and this is 8 ,18 and 28 years out. A long way out!
    Many people believe the science is settled on the climate change debate but there is still uncertainty about the amount of change in temperature, when it will occur and how much it will be impacted by the current policies. We have just witnessed the 27th COP , there has been trillions pumped into these policies over those 27 years and so far as I am aware, there has been no noticeable difference in our climate as yet.
    In effect the community is being requested to take their “ medicine” now for benefits that will most likely, but not definitely, occur much later and maybe not within many of our lifetimes.
    This medicine is creating increases in costs of everyday items such as fuel, electricity and gas and foodstuffs grown with synthetic fertilisers. These increases are real and are happening now but do not much affect the wealthy section of the community, where many of the Green votes driving these policies are coming from, but such increases fall heavily on the poor – who also get a vote.
    If too much legislation and costs are added onto the producers of food then supply will drop or prices will need to go up to justify production of such produce and this will impact on voters.
    Politicians are going to be confronted with unhappy voters and methane may then feel less important to them. No matter where one stands on the Climate Change spectrum there is undoubtedly a lot more yet to play out in this whole scene.

  7. Johann Schröder, 15/12/2022

    Well-written and informative. I’ve often wondered if rabid critics of ruminant emissions have thought their argument through. Should we stop “farming” these animals, what happens to them? Should they be “set free”, to become feral, which won’t stop them burping? Should they be exterminated? Maybe they expect a few specimens to be kept in zoos, for the educational benefit of the future vegan population.

  8. julia McKay, 14/12/2022

    A very good commentary on the impact of animal protein and its environmental and climatic benefits. It should include dairy as well as beef on that the methane emissions in grass fed dairy cattle are similar and the benefits similar. I have shared this and emphasised the natural carbon cycle from domestic ruminants and the previous emissions from “wild” ruminants eg wildebeest, giraffes, bison etc. How can ruminant emissions be classified as anthropogenic?

  9. Dennis Jackel, 14/12/2022

    What a great article, I hope the powers that be sit up and take notice, I hope this article is sent to every Federal politician in this country.

  10. John Shawyer, 14/12/2022

    Well written Adam and true. The problem is that our industry bodies start from a position of accepting that there is acutally a climate/emission issue to start with – there is NOT.
    It’s about time the meat and livestock industry (and other industries) did some simple homework and put together the abundant facts that destroy the so called Climate Science that is pushed by the UN and its green activists.
    Unfortunately we now have a massive climate/carbon industry supported by foolish governments – if you want to get to the bottom of an issue just follow the money trail.

  11. Dr David Hopkins, 14/12/2022

    Well written, we need to hear sensible discussion on this topic. It is being driven by the “religion of climate change”. Also consider the increased weed infestation that will occur as livestock are removed from the grasslands!

  12. Graham Finlayson, 13/12/2022

    Excellent article Adam. And a great point about our need to push back hard.
    With what is at stake, those claiming that drastic measures are needed are the ones that the onus of proof should be demanded of.
    While ever there is money to be made out of any solution to a problem that doesn’t exist then we need to stand firm.
    We produce potentially (depending on the management) the most sustainable, nutrient dense health food on the planet, and should be proud of that fact.

  13. Matthew Della Gola, 13/12/2022

    Really well written. We have definitely got to keep in front. Im unfortunately cynical in the fact that you are communicating logically to a movement that is not.
    Cheers Matthew Della Gola

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