Hidden props for factory farms in California climate programs

Issue page

Factory farmed meat and dairy production is one of the top contributors to climate change, with some estimates saying the food system is responsible for up to 30 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Even so, governments have mostly sidestepped this issue. From November 6 through 17, the UN Climate Change Conference is taking place in Bonn, Germany, where governments from around the world are meeting to discuss how they will collectively tackle climate change. Agriculture-related emissions tend to be ignored in these talks, but some governments are beginning to address the climate impacts of agriculture on their own.

California is one of the first governments in the world to regulate the agricultural industry based on GHGs. As the largest dairy producing state in the country, California has 1.8 million dairy cows, which collectively emit a lot of methane. Of the state’s total methane emissions, 60 percent come from agriculture, and primarily from dairy production. Last September, California passed a rule (SB 1383) to reduce Short Lived Climate Pollutants, including methane. The methane target is to achieve a 40 percent reduction below 2013 levels by 2030, a move that necessitates regulations for the mega-dairies that contribute so significantly to the problem.

Although SB 1383 will help California reduce its GHGs, it could enable the state’s dairy factory farms to continue producing in unsustainable ways. The mega-dairies of California keep thousands of cows in close confinement, which produces massive amounts of waste. The waste is stored in manure lagoons — giant ponds that hold liquified waste. These lagoons release hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonia, and carbon dioxide as the waste decomposes, contributing to terrible air quality in areas surrounded by dairies. The Central Valley of California, home of the country’s largest milk producing county, has the highest rates of emergency room visits for childhood asthma in the state. In addition, manure from the lagoons can leach into groundwater, causing nitrate contamination that prohibits residents from drinking the water. 

Despite the wide range of problems associated with concentrated dairy production, SB 1383 focuses only on climate pollutants rather than pollution more holistically, and doesn’t require regulations to take effect until 2024. Understanding how these regulations will be implemented requires some background on how California is currently handling methane from dairies. Today’s methane reduction strategies are funded through the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF), which is made up of revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade program. IATP has written extensively on the problems with cap-and-trade, but one of the often-touted successes of cap-and-trade programs is that they raise money to fund climate change adaptation and mitigation projects. In this case, the money from the GGRF that is funding methane reduction is doing so in a way that props up mega-dairies and their associated pollution.

In 2016, the GGRF released $50 million to support methane emissions reductions from dairy and livestock operations. Of that $50 million, about $35 million went to fund dairy digesters, a technology that collects the methane that is off-gassed from manure lagoons and uses it to produce energy, rather than letting it escape into the atmosphere. This technology reduces methane emissions, but it does nothing to address the terrible air and water pollution associated with the confinement model of animal production. Other strategies, such as transitioning dairies to pasture-based models of production, reduce GHGs as well as air and water pollution by removing the need to store waste in manure lagoons. Yet, in 2016, only about $15 million of the total $50 million went to support what California calls the “Alternative Manure Management Program,” which supports an array of non-digester manure management practices, including transitioning dairies to less intensive models of production.

This year, $99 million from the GGRF is allocated to fund methane emissions reductions. The split between funding dairy digesters and alternative practices through the Alternative Manure Management Program is yet undetermined. If California is serious about addressing pollution holistically rather than focusing narrowly on methane, most of the funding should go to alternative manure management practices that support farmers in transitioning to more sustainable production models. The same must be true for the eventual implementation of SB 1383.

Another California bill to know is SB 100, which is currently working its way through the state legislature. This bill would strengthen the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard Program to achieve a 50% renewable energy target by the end of 2026, and a 60% target by the end of 2030. These targets are ambitious and much-needed to address climate change. Where things get controversial is in the state’s definition of what qualifies as renewable energy, which includes the biogas created by dairy digesters. This biogas is dirty energy, created from animal waste that pollutes air and water. Yet, the state’s standing definition of renewable energy defines the biogas as clean natural gas, a misleading description that allows California to meet its renewable energy targets by propping up factory farms.

Because the renewable energy targets presented in SB 100 are laudable, many groups are willing to overlook the inclusion of biogas as a renewable energy to get the state to stricter renewables targets. Although we fully support strong Renewable Portfolio Standards, biogas from mega-dairies is contributing to environmental and public health crises in communities made up predominantly of low-income, minority residents and should not be included in the standards. California’s definition of renewable energy should be amended to remove biogas as an eligible renewable energy source.

There is little question that industrial meat and dairy production contributes significantly to climate change, and we must take reducing their GHGs seriously. The governments convening in Bonn at the global climate talks should discuss how they can address these factory farm emissions at the global level. At a more local level, as California works to reduce methane emissions from factory farms, it cannot forget other things that matter, including community health and a clean environment. Climate solutions must also be community solutions, and subsidizing dairy digesters as a climate mitigation strategy does not achieve this dual purpose.