Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) urged action on reducing the potent greenhouse gas methane to slow the climate crisis. Sharp reductions in methane, which stays in the atmosphere for only a decade, can bring more immediate climate benefits than reduction of carbon dioxide, which can stay in the atmosphere up to 1,000 years. At last year’s global climate meeting, more than 120 countries, led by the U.S. and European Union, signed the Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions 30% by 2030. While agriculture is the world’s largest source of methane (mostly from ruminant animals), most governments, including the U.S., have targeted only the oil and gas sector. At tomorrow’s Methane Ministerial at COP27, where countries will assess progress on the Pledge, there is an important opportunity to step up actions to reduce agriculture methane emissions.
Recent reports on methane emissions indicate we’re headed in the wrong direction. Last year, the world saw the largest single year increase in methane emissions since monitoring began four decades ago. The U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) projects that without serious reduction efforts, methane emissions, including agriculture emissions linked to livestock, will continue to climb through 2030.
A new report released earlier this week by IATP and the Changing Markets Foundation reflects the scope of the challenge. We found that 15 of the largest dairy and meat companies emit more methane than many countries, including Russia, Australia, Germany and Canada. Yet only six of these companies report their greenhouse gas emissions within their supply chain (including at the farm level), and none report their supply chain methane emissions. As troubling, the emissions from these companies are rising.
In preparation for the Methane Ministerial, the Biden administration updated its U.S. Methane Plan. IATP’s analysis of that plan last year was sharply critical of strategies to address agriculture methane, particularly the primary focus on public support for the controversial use of methane digesters on giant manure lagoons created at large-scale dairy, beef and hog operations. The use of digesters to capture and produce manure-based gas, best understood as factory farm gas, is opposed by many rural communities because of the residual air and water pollution associated with these operations. More recent evidence suggests factory farm gas is fueling consolidation in the dairy industry and incentivizing large-scale operations to produce more manure and ultimately new emissions. Five senators recently wrote the U.S. EPA and USDA calling for limits in using incentives to support methane digesters on large-scale animal operations.
Last week’s updated U.S. Methane Plan was largely more of the same on agriculture, tying incentive-based programs on methane digesters to larger climate and agriculture efforts without clear interim reduction targets as we head toward 2030.
In contrast, the Biden administration has acted more aggressively on oil and gas sources of methane. Citing its authority under the Clean Air Act, the U.S. EPA announced last week new rules to reduce methane emissions from the fossil fuel industry, including policies to stop venting and flaring and requiring companies to fix gas leaking infrastructure. Within its Methane Plan, the Biden administration also cited the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act to require the reduction of methane emissions from landfills.
For agriculture, the original and updated Methane Plan makes no mention of EPA’s Clean Air Act authority to regulate emissions. Last year, IATP joined others in petitioning the EPA to regulate methane emissions on large-scale dairy and hog operations under the Clean Air Act. The EPA has yet to act on that petition.
The Biden administration is not alone in failing to act on agriculture methane emissions. A report last year by the Changing Markets Foundation concluded that among 17 major agriculture countries that have signed the Methane Pledge, none had concrete measures and action plans to reduce agriculture methane. Since then, New Zealand and Ireland have started policy discussions to address agricultural methane.
Recent developments in tracking methane emissions may spur action. At COP27, UNEP announced the Methane Alert and Response System (MARS), a satellite-based system to alert countries of major methane emission sources and to track corporate reporting of emissions. While a number of new greenhouse gas tracking systems have put a spotlight on oil and gas emissions, large-scale animal agriculture operations have also been identified as major methane emission sources. Recent research indicates that methane emissions from large-scale animal operations counted under climate modeling tools have significantly undercounted emissions.
A critical element of the Global Methane Pledge is accountability. Each year, signatories commit to reporting progress at the Methane Ministerial. But thus far, like many of the COP-related events, progress is characterized as new announcements and pledges — not actual emission reductions. With detailed tracking and actions to reduce methane emissions from large-scale meat and dairy production, there is still a chance that countries can meet their 2030 goals and make a major contribution in fighting the climate crisis.