How can we respond to cow farts and farm emissions?

Early in the climate change journey, two villains were publicly identified – fossil fuels and farting farm animals, in particular, cows and sheep.

The most recent statistics from Australia’s Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water show fossil fuels are declining, while agricultural emissions are on the rise.

To put that into perspective, electricity generation remains the major source of emissions in Australia, with 33.3% of total greenhouse gas emissions adding 154.6mt of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) to the atmosphere in 2022. This was followed by “stationary energy excluding electricity” – emissions from direct combustion of fuels from manufacturing, mining, residential and commercial – with 22.4% (104mt), transport at 20.2% (93.6mt), and then agriculture at number four with 17.4% (80.7mt) of emissions.

The Climate Council puts agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions at about 13%, less than half of which (42%) comes from the methane largely pumped out by flatulent cows and other livestock.

Yet agriculture remains a key target for the Australian Government in its scramble to meet the Net Zero 2050 Plan. This month, the government released a discussion paper on agriculture and the land as the first of 6 decarbonisation plans.

“Agriculture, as a sector in the National Greenhouse Account, made up 16.8% of national greenhouse gas emissions in 2020–21,” the government’s press release noted. “This share is expected to increase as other parts of the economy, such as the electricity sector, take up more readily available and lower cost abatement options.”

The release noted the Federal Government would partner with producers and land managers to develop an Agriculture and Land Plan.

Addressing the issue

Red meat producers have long recognised the industry’s contribution to emissions. In 2017, the industry committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 (CN30) with a focus on 4 key areas: greenhouse gas emissions avoidance, carbon storage on farm, integrated management systems, and industry leadership.

There has also been industry research into reducing livestock methane emissions, including the recent announcement by the University of Queensland that researchers were working on 4 projects that could reduce methane emissions by as much as 30%.

Professor Ben Hayes from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) said there was an “enormous opportunity” to reduce emissions in agriculture, particularly in cattle grazing.

“We’re taking a multi-pronged approach to this and we’re not just relying on one technology,” Hayes said. “If the projects are successful, it’ll lead to quite substantial reductions in methane emissions for the beef industry and that’s really important as a social licence to continue operating and market access into the future.”

All emissions are not equal

The method of calculating agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions remains controversial.

The Climate Council has said the method of lumping methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide together as “carbon dioxide equivalent” can be problematic. Methane is more potent as it heats up the atmosphere more quickly, however, it has a far shorter lifespan than carbon dioxide.

“Methane is a live-fast, die-young gas,” the Climate Council explains on its website. “Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, is a ‘slow and steady’, tortoise-type greenhouse gas.”

The relatively new “Cattle Australia” (CA) also says the CN30 framework needs to be reviewed, arguing that instead of concentrating on the “simplified CO2 equivalent”, the focus should be on the bottom-line warming impact.

“International efforts are focussed on limiting warming – we should be doing the same,” CA Chair David Foote says.

“We are constantly learning about how our emissions interact in the atmosphere, and we should not wed ourselves to how we understood the issue a decade ago.

“Cattle Australia members are seeking recognition that their emissions are part of a natural cycle, which is vastly different to fossil fuel emissions. Methane has a short lifespan and breaks down into CO2 which the beef industry has the ability to capture through pasture photosynthesis.”

The MLA’s report “Pathways to climate neutrality for the Australian red meat industry” released in March this year found the Australian red meat industry has the potential  to become climate neutral by 2026.

“This is also possible for the beef cattle and sheep meat sectors individually,” the report notes. “The feedlot sector has the potential to achieve climate neutrality in 2028. Climate neutrality appears realistically achievable and with successful deployment of emission reduction and sequestration strategies there is scope for future industry growth.”

The report also recommended the adoption of a climate-neutral target and reconsider the CN30 target.

For rural and regional science news: Cosmos Country Podcast

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