The United Nations is going after methane emissions in the effort to slow climate change. Vermont’s cows have nothing to worry about.
Cows burp — not fart — out methane as their complex ruminant digestive systems break down plant materials, explains Sara Place, an animal scientist with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Critics often cite global averages to suggest that cattle are one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.
In fact, some research shows removing all livestock and poultry from the United States alone would only reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 0.36 percent.
In 1950, the U.S. had 25 million dairy cows. Today, we have only 9 million. The herd has shrunk drastically, but with those 9 million cows, we are producing 60% more milk, said Frank Mitloehner of the University of California, Davis. That means that the U.S. dairy industry’s carbon footprint is down by two-thirds. That’s a substantial reduction in carbon dioxide and methane emissions.
Specifically, cattle farming in the United States is the most environmentally friendly and sustainable in the world, Place told the Iowa Farm Bureau.
In the past 40 years, the U.S. cattle herd has shrunk by one-third, yet U.S. farmers are producing more beef today than they did in the 1970s, Place said.
So while cows are off the hook, there is a global problem clearly identified — methane.
The United Nations report this week states that cutting the super-potent greenhouse gas methane quickly and dramatically is the world’s best hope to slow and limit the worst of global warming.
If human-caused methane emissions are cut by nearly half by 2030, a half degree of warming can be prevented by mid-century, according to the report.
It stated the methane reduction would be relatively inexpensive and could be achieved — by plugging leaks in pipelines, stopping venting of natural gas during energy drilling, capturing gas from landfills and reducing methane from belching livestock and other agricultural sources, which is the biggest challenge.
Because methane helps make smog, cutting annual emissions of the gas by 45% or nearly 200 million tons, could potentially prevent about 250,000 deaths a year worldwide from pollution-triggered health problems, the U.N. said.
In published interviews, United Nations Environment Program Director Inger Andersen said without methane and carbon dioxide reductions, the world cannot achieve the goals set forth in the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
Drew Shindell, a Duke University Earth sciences professor who authored the report, said recent acceleration of methane pollution “is really taking us far far off” the Paris goals.
Methane reduction can provide short-term help in the long effort to curb global warming because it’s more potent yet shorter-lived than carbon dioxide.
Satellites are showing massive energy-related leaks, especially in the United States and Russia.
Methane only lasts a dozen years in the air, while carbon dioxide sticks around for centuries. Per molecule, methane traps dozens of times the heat of carbon dioxide. There is 200 times more carbon dioxide in the air than methane, according to online science sources.
The White House is working on new regulations to control leaks from energy production; and in stimulus spending targets controlling methane leaks.
Overall, about 60% of the methane comes from human activity, the rest from wetlands and other natural sources, the report stated. Of the man-made methane, about 35% escapes from drilling and transport of natural gas and oil, 20% seeps out of landfills and 40% comes from agriculture, mostly livestock.
The report does suggest that cutting food waste, improving how livestock is fed and adopting diets with less animal products can spare the planet up to 88 million tons of methane a year.
Making adjustments that can have appreciable results toward turning the corner on climate change seem like logical things to do, especially when so much of the climate change conversation feels out of our reach.
It makes sense, even if it is a lot of information to digest. For now, maybe don’t tell the cows they might be going on a diet.