The methane menace and hamburgers

A paper on the contribution to climate change of livestock methane emissions has found that the problem is likely to get worse as global demand for meat and dairy products increases. Dr Andy Thorpe, an economist at Portsmouth University, found that a single herd of 200 cows can produce annual emissions of methane roughly equivalent in energy terms to driving a family car 180,000 km.

Whereas carbon dioxide emissions have increased 31 per cent over the past 250 years, methane, which has a higher warming potential and a longer atmosphere lifetime than carbon dioxide has increased by 149 per cent over that time. Dr Thorpe commented that

‘Methane emission growth … has been increasing exponentially in the developing world due to a rise in incomes leading to an increased demand for meat and the “hamburger connection” where developing countries make a lucrative profit supplying meat to developed countries.’

Attempts to curb animal methane emissions have included feeding grazing animals on cottonseed and alfalfa, using food additives, and vacinnating animals with drugs, but it is not clear if they will work on a large scale. A reduction in the amount of livestock kept for meat and milk would only put pressure on other food sources, such as cereals.

Animal methane emissions from developing countries have increased to 75 per cent of the global total, with India and Brazil in the lead. It is thought that atmospheric methane is responsible for one-fifth of the global warming since 1750.

Cows, sheep, goats and camels have an additional stomach and produce large amounts of methane as they digest their food. A dairy cow in New Zealand will typically produce around 80kg of methane a year, just through burping.

The policy pressures this produces is shown by complaints from the Irish Dairy Industries Association that the Republic’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is piling further economic pressure on the country’s beleaguered dairy industry. It was argued that because Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)were closely linked to methane from cattle, a 20 per cent cut in GHG emissions would result in a 20 per cent cut in Ireland’s dairy herd.

The association complained that there is no international standard for measurement of emissions from enetric fermentation in cattle. The background to these concerns is a sharp drop in prices from 40 cents a litre in 2007 to around 24 now.

Vegetarians would no doubt argue that the GHG emissions of cattle reinforce the case for not eating meat. In practice, it is difficult to see how the problem can be tackled given that the livestock sector is under heavy economic pressure.

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5 Replies to “The methane menace and hamburgers”

  1. The economist would say that agriculture should be fully integrated into any future cap-and-trade emissions permits market or subject to any GHG-related taxation. Commissioner Fischer Boel today told the European Parliament that climate change was her number one priority. But I think she’s a long way from countenancing this kind of approach!

    You say that “A reduction in the amount of livestock kept for meat and milk would only put pressure on other food sources, such as cereals.” This glosses over the fact that in terms of GHG emissions per calorie, there is no contest. Cereals and legumes win hands down. Moreover, it could be argued that increasing meat consumption is driving up commodity prices faced by the world’s poor, for whom meat remains an unobtainable luxury.

    The obesity problem in developed countries (not to mention bowel cancers, heart disease and the rest) is often linked by public health physicians to high levels of meat consumption, particularly red meat.

    Marginal increases in the price of meat will change consumption habits. And there is certainly a role for government if not in taxing livestock, then at the very least ending policies which actively encourage livestock rearing, educating people about portion control and the like.

    Whichever way you look at it, livestock are associated with a lot of negative externalities. Yet we live in a world in which prevailing cultures reinforce a strong attachment a meat-centric diet. Jon Worth has an idea for applying the fashionable nudge-style approach to policy-making to the issue. He calls it non-radical vegetarianism.

  2. These are powerful arguments, although I have some scepticism about the current fashion for ‘nudging’. The moral, health and practical arguments for vegetarianism are strong, but one challenge is to grow more field vegetables as the availability of synthetic pesticides diminishes. Biological pesticides which are less toxic can work well in glasshouses, but have been less successful to date on temperate field crops.

  3. My point – and Jon’s too, I think – is that it’s less about a crusade for vegetarianism and more about a modest shift away from a dietary norms in which meat is the centrepiece of every meal we eat. If you think back to cuisine of past decades, people made a single joint of meat or bird last over several meals with stews, stocks, soups and the rest.

    In many respects today’s abundance of affordable foods is to be welcomed as a sign of increased living standards, but the risks of the ‘meat binge’ are often ignored.

  4. I would certainly sign up to such a modest shift myself, how one translates it into public policy is more of a challenge, but public procurement practices may be one area in which progress could be made.

  5. There are rumours circulating in the US that the Environmental Protection Agency is considering levying a cow and pig tax, as part of the Clean Air Act.

    It’s not quite as straightforward as this, however. What is going on is that the EPA is being asked to rule on whether or not greenhouse gas emissions should be classified as ‘endangering public safety’ as a consequence of their impact on climate change. If that finding is made, all GHGs including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide would have to be regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act. Once an endangerment finding is made, other provisions of the Clean Air Act are automatically triggered, creating much broader regulation of other sectors of the economy, including agriculture.

    Interesting stuff!

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