Greenhouse Gas Emissions

We recognize that greenhouse gas emissions are one of the factors affecting climate change - Rex Tillerson

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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The consumption of meat and dairy accounts for around 15% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock production is the largest source of global methane and nitrous oxide emissions, two particularly potent greenhouse gases.

A March study by scientists in New Zealand found that agriculture is the primary cause of the recent rise in global methane emissions. The biggest source of methane is enteric fermentation—crudely put, animal belching and flatulence. Another new study released this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and University of Colorado found that, while methane from fossil fuel development is much larger than previously believed, biological sources such as cattle, landfills and agriculture still account for up to two-thirds of total human-caused methane emissions.

Environmentalists have campaigned for reduced meat consumption—from creating Meatless Mondays and other efforts to increase awareness of the health and climate impacts of eating meat to advocating for a “meat tax.” While meat alternatives are increasingly touted, from high-end veggie burgers to lab-grown meat, Americans still love a good burger. We ate 5% more meat in 2015 than the year before—the biggest increase in 40 years.

The movement to increase locally-grown food has also intensified in an effort to reduce the carbon footprint of the food chain by reducing the need to transport food products over large distances. But the carbon footprint of locally-grown food is not always better than for imported food. According to one study, transportation and distribution represents only 15% of greenhouse gas emissions from food, while production is 83%. And food grown in climates and soil not suited to it can use much more energy.

One study, for example, found that imported tomatoes grown in Spain or Italy had half the greenhouse gas emissions as tomatoes grown locally in Austria using heated greenhouses (although it also found unheated, organic production systems could make local production less energy-intensive). Another study found that tomatoes grown in the U.K. emit more than three times as much CO2 per ton as tomatoes imported from Spain.

While changing eating habits is notoriously difficult, there are other steps we can take to reduce agriculture emissions. For example, by changing farming practices through different crop management approaches, improved fertilizer management, conservation tillage, and better management of grazing lands. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released a set of 10 building blocks, from soil health to nutrient management, to reduce agriculture emissions.

Existing technologies and best practices could reduce agriculture emissions by around 20% to 40%, a team of researchers recently found. But more transformative technologies and practices will be needed to reduce emissions further to achieve the ambitious long-term reduction goals agreed upon in Paris.

Biological or chemical feed supplements that inhibit methane production, or even new low-emission livestock breeds, are some potential examples, according to the study’s lead author. A recent experiment found that a supplement added to the feed of cows reduced methane emissions by 30%.

But how to get farmers around the world to adopt innovative practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? The successful global collaboration to address the shrinking hole in the ozone layer may point the way. Faced with rapid depletion of the ozone layer that protects us from harmful ultraviolet rays, the world’s nations came together to approve the Montreal Protocol in 1987 to phase out ozone-depleting chloroflourocarbons (CFCs). The agreement has succeeded, and researchers have confirmed the ozone hole is closing up.

And the Montreal Protocol continues to be a powerful environmental tool. It was just amended this past weekend in Kigali, Rwanda in a landmark agreement to phase out hydroflourocarbons (HFCs), a very powerful contributor to climate change originally developed as a substitute for CFCs.

Why did the Montreal Protocol succeed? My colleague at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, Scott Barrett, a world-leading expert in climate negotiations, has explained how a credible enforcement threat of trade restrictions, combined with side payments to developing countries, created a positive feedback effect whereby the commercial benefits to firms increased as more companies complied.

Similarly, Barrett has shown how the MARPOL treaty succeeded where other treaty efforts had failed in limiting emissions of oil from tankers by requiring the adoption of a technology standard—the segregated ballast tank—that was relatively easy to enforce, rather than quantitative ceilings on emissions that are hard to enforce. Moreover, the more countries that required the standard, the greater was the incentive for tanker operators to comply in order to have access to those ports.

Using these models for agriculture is instructive, suggesting that nations should focus on negotiating new technology standards for lower emission agriculture practices with credible enforcement threats (such as restricted access to markets) and targeted payments to incentivize participation.

If we’re serious about meeting the climate challenge, agriculture emissions can no longer get a free pass. While changing eating habits can make a difference, experience suggests there is reason to be pessimistic about how quickly that could occur. Adopting Montreal Protocol-like international negotiating approaches to encourage the adoption of new agriculture technologies and practices presents a meaningful opportunity to start making a dent in the world’s rising emissions from food production.

Source: Source: Jason Bordoff, Carbon in Atmosphere Is Rising, Even as Emissions Stabilize, The Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2016.

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Last Updated : Wednesday, November 29, 2017