The Global Methane Pledge; a way to keep us below 1.5 degrees or a load of hot air?
In failing to significantly address the methane emissions of our unsustainable food system the pledge falls short.
This week was big for methane at the COP26 global climate negotiations in Glasgow. As had been trailed beforehand, global leaders including President Joe Biden announced a Global Methane Pledge. The pledge commits to reduce methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030 and transition to using the best methodologies to measure methane emissions. The alliance of 90 countries signing onto the pledge includes the US, EU, and Brazil, but crucially excludes China, India and Russia (the three other largest emitters after Brazil). Delivering on the Pledge would reduce warming by at least 0.2 degrees Celsius by 2050.
Like another agreement to halt and reverse deforestation, commentators have expressed support but also concern on how the pledge will be delivered – or if it will be at all. Global climate negotiations are no strangers to unfulfilled promises and vague commitments. Here are our key concerns;
Not ambitious enough
There has been much focus at COP26 on need to stay within 1.5°C, the pledge falls short on this. Global temperature has risen by 1.2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and the IPCC projects us to hit 1.5 degrees at or before 2030. Cutting methane emissions by 40–45% (whereas pledge only commits to a 30% cut) by 2030 allows us to limit global warming to 1.5° C this century according to the IPCC.
Ignoring the biggest source of methane
The pledge focuses on the energy sector, which contributes 35% of methane emissions. A 75% cut in methane emissions from oil and gas operations by 2030 is possible with existing technology at near zero cost, the oil and gas industry is considered the “low-hanging fruit” of methane reduction. However, the single biggest source of global methane is largely ignored. Agriculture accounts for 40% of global methane emissions. Most agricultural methane emissions come from growing rice and raising ruminant animals (via enteric fermentation and manure). A large part of these emissions come from large-scale farms, particularly in the US where methane emissions nearly doubled between 1990 and 2019, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. These emissions will keep growing as the global population increases and developing countries get richer and consume more protein.
Industrial livestock producers are major culprits in methane emissions: direct methane emissions from livestock have caused a fifth of all global warming since the industrial revolution. It’s not difficult – technically speaking – to reduce these emissions. Simply farm far less methane-emitting livestock (mainly ruminants like cows and sheep) and ensure livestock that is farmed is reared in ways that minimise methane emissions and provide other benefits like soil carbon sequestration and nature conservation by using agro-ecological rearing methods.
Focusing on the wrong solutions
The pledge doesn’t even consider significantly changing our food system: instead, it talks about “climate-smart” technological fixes such as improved manure management systems, anaerobic digesters and new livestock feeds. The focus on anaerobic digestion, or biogas, as a solution to manage food waste and methane from manure, is a major climate concern. Public subsidies directed at anaerobic digestion risk incentivising expansion of the intensive livestock industry by making it cheaper for industrial farms to dispose of their waste.
Similarly, reducing food waste – another major source of methane – gets a mention, but it’s not clear whether this will be about channelling resources and regulation to get big companies who set the conditions that cause most waste to address this, or about spending lots of money on biogas digesters that tie us into long-term ‘waste disposal’ infrastructure, without addressing the source of the problem.
Likewise, preventing the manure and slurries from being produced in the first place, through reduced meat and dairy production and consumption in the UK would reduce emissions substantially more than the mitigation potential offered by Anaerobic Digestion, and also has the potential to free up vast quantities of land for tree planting and additional carbon sequestration leading to a 156% reduction in the UK’s agricultural emissions.
Reducing food waste, improving livestock management, and the adoption of healthy diets (vegetarian or with a lower meat and dairy content) could reduce methane emissions by 65–80 Mt/yr over the next few decades. This is significantly greater than the emissions reductions of 29–57 Mt/yr available from readily available targeted measures for oil and gas.
The bottom line
It is positive that methane is being focused on and if delivered the pledge will contribute towards the goal of remaining below 1.5 degrees. However, in failing to significantly address the methane emissions of our unsustainable food system the pledge falls short. We simply can’t achieve recommended methane emissions without tackling Big Livestock and ultimately creating a better food system.
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