The Field Report: New Report Says Plans to Reduce Methane Fall Short on Big Meat and Dairy | Civil Eats

The Field Report: New Report Says Plans to Reduce Methane Fall Short on Big Meat and Dairy

The Supreme Court limits federal action on greenhouse gas emissions. Plus: new food-focused climate solutions, another look at food miles, and even more nitrogen concerns. 

Aerial view of dairy cows

June 30, 2022 update: The U.S. Supreme Court today issued a ruling in West Virginia v. EPA that limits the federal government’s ability to regulate the energy sector under the Clean Air Act. The 6-3 ruling, which was just handed down, restricts the government to using “measures like emission controls at individual power plants and, unless Congress acts, ruling out more ambitious approaches like a cap-and-trade system” to fight climate change. Live updates from The New York Times are here, and a detailed pre-ruling analysis of what the case might mean for climate policy is here.

This story is part of the Food & Water Joint Coverage Week of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Last November, the Biden administration released a Methane Emissions Reduction Plan that included detailed steps to reduce emissions of the potent planet-warming gas from the oil and gas industries and from landfills. Under the authority of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would expand regulations on energy companies and require landfills to significantly reduce their emissions.

But on agriculture—which is the country’s largest source of methane emissions—the administration took an entirely different tack, proposing no new rules. Instead, the plan proposed “expanding incentive-based and voluntary partnership efforts” to reduce emissions.

According to a new report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), those efforts will not be nearly enough, and “there is much more the Biden administration can and must do” if the U.S. is to have a chance at honoring its global pledge to cut methane emissions overall by 30 percent by 2030.

“It really is a political reluctance to ever talk about regulation when it comes to agriculture,” says Ben Lilliston, the author of the report and director of rural strategies and climate change at IATP. “We’re huge fans of voluntary programs, but when there are market pressures to get bigger and to go toward more-polluting systems, these types of voluntary [initiatives] are going to be limited.”

In 2019, 37 percent of the country’s methane emissions came from animal agriculture. In the latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s top climate scientists said the food and agriculture sector could provide up to a third of the greenhouse gas emissions cuts needed to avoid catastrophic impacts, and they zeroed in on reducing methane across sectors as critical.

While enteric fermentation—or cow burps—is the largest source of methane from agriculture, emissions from a growing number of larger concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) using liquid manure systems are increasing the most. Between 1990 and 2019, methane emissions from manure management increased 68 percent, while overall methane emissions from agriculture increased 17.5 percent.

In the report, Lilliston details how the Biden administration’s plans to address those emissions are centered almost exclusively on building more digesters on dairy and hog farms, which capture methane from CAFOs and convert it to energy. However, digesters are controversial for several reasons. Experts and advocates say directing funding to digesters incentivizes building larger CAFOs that produce other forms of pollution and impact surrounding communities in a number of ways, including degrading their water and air quality. Since the gas is now fed into natural gas pipelines, digesters can also help entrench fossil fuel infrastructure.

Instead of relying on digesters, IATP’s report provides eight steps to build a “stronger methane” plan. First, it says that the EPA should regulate methane emissions from the largest dairy and hog CAFOs using its authority under the Clean Air Act, in the same way that the agency has proposed doing so at landfills and in the oil and gas sector. In April 2021, IATP was one of 25 organizations including the Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth that petitioned the EPA on this point, but Lilliston said the agency has not yet responded to the petition.

This week’s Supreme Court decision in West Virginia vs. EPA could also limit the agency’s ability to make this move: The case, which centers the question of if the EPA or Congress has authority to regulate power plant emissions, could have broad implications for the ability of the executive branch to fight climate change.

Another recommendation that Lilliston thinks could have a huge impact is the Security and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) recent proposed rule that, if finalized, would require publicly traded companies to report emissions and climate-related risks to investors. The rule could require meat companies to report methane emissions from farms within its supply chain. “It doesn’t require them to reduce emissions, but it holds them accountable,” he said.

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Since the draft rule was published, the American Farm Bureau Federation has been mobilizing its members to ask the SEC to remove the requirement around supply chain emissions. “This could create burdensome reporting requirements for family farms and ranches selling into supply chains and force the disclosure of private information. And may create multiple, new sources of substantial costs and liabilities,” the Farm Bureau states on its website.

But Lilliston says the rule puts the burden squarely on companies, not farms, and that the requirement could create real opportunities for small farms that are using more climate-friendly practices. ”If a company is sourcing and knows that it has to report out its climate risk and its emissions, they would be looking for farmers doing it this [more sustainable] way,” he said. “The value would actually get recognized by the marketplace . . . and it would be more incentive for [other] farmers to be part of it.”

It’s worth noting that as far as food companies go, voluntary pledges haven’t led to significant emissions reductions to date. Another report released last week found that “companies in the industry have barely reduced emissions since the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015” and are far from meeting 2030 goals. And on the oil and gas side, on Monday, a firm that analyzes satellite data reported that despite pledges, methane emissions from fossil fuels increased in the first quarter of 2022 compared to both the previous quarter and the same time period a year earlier.

The opportunity that the global methane pledge presents, Lilliston said, is that the goal—reducing methane emissions 30 percent by 2030—is straightforward, the timeline is short, and an annual check-in among world leaders is built into the process.

“They will have to report out how they’re doing at the end of 2022 . . . and I think it’s going to be hard for them to say that they’ve made much progress,” he said. “Each year it will be more and more interesting, and that certainly leads into the farm bill.” Given that the massive omnibus bill determines agriculture policy for five years, “if we’re serious about this, we’re going to have to have some elements of the bill that are looking at [methane] or at least considering it.”

Read More:
Methane from Agriculture is a Big Problem. We Explain Why.
Are Biogas Subsidies Benefiting the Largest Industrial Animal Farms?
Are Dairy Digesters a Renewable Energy Answer or a ‘False Solution’ to Climate Change?

New Food-Focused Drawdown Solutions. Methane emissions reduction and food system strategies both got increased billing in Project Drawdown’s updated list of science-backed climate solutions released on Monday. The update comes five years after Drawdown’s initial list, and as before, presents data based on modeling applied to two scenarios: IPCC’s targets of limiting warming to 2°C and 1.5°C. Drawdown’s scientists were able to utilize new emissions data on 88 commodities. Based on that data, in the 2°C scenario, Plant-Rich Diets and Reduced Food Waste are now at the top of the potential impact list. In the 1.5°C scenario, those solutions are behind only Onshore Wind Turbines and Utility-Scale Solar Photovoltaics in terms of the scale of their impact. Drawdown’s update also added 11 new solutions to its list, seven of which focus on food and agriculture systems. Improved cattle feed and improved manure management tackle methane from animal agriculture, while seaweed farming, improved aquaculture, and other strategies apply to the oceans and seafood.

Read More:
Stopping Food Waste Before It Starts Is Key to Reaching Climate Goals
Can We Grow Enough Seaweed to Help Cows Fight Climate Change?
Carbon Farming and Cutting Food Waste: Climate Solutions That Don’t Require Trump’s Buy-in

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A Fresh Look at Food Miles. Previous research estimated that 5 percent of a food’s greenhouse gas emissions could be attributed to moving it around the globe. Therefore, in terms of climate impact, how far your food traveled to get to you was nearly insignificant compared to the emissions from what kind of food you were eating (i.e., beef vs. beans)—even if eating locally had other positive impacts. But a study published this month in Nature Food found that emissions from food miles are 3.5–7.5 times higher than previously estimated and actually account for closer to 20 percent of the global food system’s climate impact. And while emissions from growing fruits and vegetables are tiny compared to emissions from meat production, when it comes to transportation, the scales tip in the other direction: The researchers concluded that shipping produce is more emissions-intensive than growing it, and more than a third of emissions from global food miles are attributable to fruits and vegetables. “To mitigate food system environmental impact, we conclude that the strategy of dietary change to reduce animal product consumption and promote plant-based foods must at least be coupled with switching towards more local production in high-income countries,” they wrote.

Read More:
Ken Meter Is on a Mission to Build Community Food Webs
Exploring a Decade of Big Changes in Local Food
Can Local Food Feed Big Cities? Yes, If We Cut Down on Meat

Nitrogen in All Its Forms. As a greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide is even more powerful than methane when it comes to warming the planet. And in the U.S, agriculture contributes nearly 80 percent of human-caused emissions. Most of that nitrous oxide is released into the air from fields where excess nitrogen fertilizer is applied. However, the nitrogen cycle is complicated, and those same nitrogen-rich fields can also release ammonia and nitrogen oxides into the air (not to mention the nitrogen that gets into waterways and contributes to dead zones). In a study published last week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, researchers found that those other compounds have real impacts that are often overshadowed by nitrous oxide. In fact, in heavily populated regions, the health impact of air pollution from ammonia and nitrogen oxides was about seven to 15 times higher than the climate impact from nitrous oxide. Those results, the researchers wrote, “show that air pollution, health, and climate should be considered jointly in future assessments of how farming practices affect [reactive nitrogen] emissions.”

Read More:
Nitrous Oxide on Farms, Explained
20 Hotspots to Start Fixing Nitrogen Pollution in Agriculture

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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