Don’t have a cow, but Big Dairy’s climate footprint is as big as the UK’s

dairy cows with planetGrist

If dairy cows were a country, they would have the same climate impact as the entire United Kingdom. That’s according to a new analysis from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), which considered the combined annual emissions from the world’s 13 largest dairy operations in 2017, the most recent year for which data was available.

The institute’s report follows up on a similar analysis the organization undertook for 2015. That year, the IATP found that the five largest meat and dairy companies combined had emissions portfolios greater than those of some of the world’s largest oil companies, like ExxonMobil and Shell. Most of the emissions were from meat, but this latest report finds that dairy remains a significant and growing source of emissions: In the two years between reports, the 13 top dairy companies’ emissions grew 11 percent — a 32.3 million metric ton increase in greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions that would be released by adding an extra 6.9 million cars to the road for a year.

Dairy emissions come mostly from the cows themselves — specifically, from their notorious burps. Fermentation processes in cows’ stomachs produce the byproduct methane, which doesn’t stick around in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide but absorbs more heat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says methane from ruminants like cows are an important contributor to the increase of atmospheric methane levels.

Shefali Sharma, director of IATP Europe and author of the new study, said it was staggering to see dairy’s increase in emissions, especially since it occurred in the two years after the Paris Agreement was negotiated. “We’re supposed to be going in the opposite direction,” she told Grist.

The report points to consolidation and rising production as the main culprits for the increased emissions. From 2015 to 2017, the 13 companies used mergers and acquisitions to expand geographically and subsume smaller farms. As the companies got bigger, their production increased by 8 percent, which led to the emissions hike.

The dairy industry takes issue with the report’s framing, chalking the emissions increase up to an “accounting change.” As smaller farms were absorbed by the big companies, the industry argued, their production and greenhouse gas emissions got wrapped into the 13 largest producers’ emissions numbers.

“These are not new emissions,” the International Dairy Federation and the Global Dairy Platform said in a joint statement responding to the IATP report.

At the same time, the companies haven’t done much to help researchers figure out their net greenhouse gas output; none are required to disclose their climate impacts, and only five of the 13 publicly report their emissions. Zero of them have committed to reducing the overall emissions footprint of their dairy supply chains.

“There’s no transparency, not even basic production numbers,” Sharma told Grist. To calculate the companies’ emissions for the IATP report, Sharma used production estimates calculated by the IFCN, a dairy research network, and calculated each firm’s associated carbon emissions using an accounting method established by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Instead of focusing on total emissions, the biggest dairy producers have tried to paint a different picture of their climate impact. The IATP report says companies like Danone have drawn attention to something they call “emissions intensity”: the greenhouse gas emissions associated with each liter of milk.

According to Sharma, focusing on emissions intensity allows dairy producers to make more milk, more efficiently, and then say they’re reducing their climate impacts. Even if the total number of cows increases (which it has), and even if cumulative emissions go up (which they have), the industry can mask these planet-warming effects by emphasizing greater greenhouse gas efficiency per unit of milk produced. For example, a 2019 report from the FAO — which was co-authored by the Global Dairy Platform — says the dairy industry’s emissions intensity, measured in greenhouse gas per kilogram of milk, declined by nearly 11 percent from 2005 to 2015.

However, the same section of the report also says that “increased production efficiency is typically associated with a higher level of absolute emissions (unless animal numbers are decreasing).” The Global Dairy Platform acknowledged this in its statement responding to the IATP report, saying that as the industry increased its production by 30 percent globally between 2005 and 2015, it could have increased its absolute emissions by 38 percent. But because of “improvements” to increase efficiency, absolute emissions only rose by 18 percent.

Sharma says it’s a distraction to focus on emissions intensity. “You’ve got to reduce your overall emissions, it doesn’t matter about your ‘per unit,’” she told Grist. To her, that means producing less milk — with fewer cows.

On top of the climate change impacts, the IATP report also highlights the impacts of big dairy operations on small- and medium-sized farms. In each of the world’s four main dairy-producing regions — North America, Europe, India, and New Zealand — bankruptcy and farm losses increased between 2015 and 2017.

In the United States, 94 percent of family farms in dairy have closed since the 1970s. Between 2014 and 2019, Wisconsin — America’s self-proclaimed “Dairyland” — lost more than a quarter of its 10,000 dairy farms.

In the absence of governmental supply management policies, the mega-dairies that incorporate these small farms are able to flood the market with milk, often for export, driving down dairy prices and crowding out small holders or reducing their income. They are also often unaccountable for environmental pollution, from manure runoff from fields to spills from manure storage lagoons to air pollution.

To remediate the situation, Sharma doesn’t think people need to give up milk; she just wants the dairy industry to radically change its business model. “You could totally still have farms with livestock on them,” she told Grist. “It just wouldn’t be the vast quantity of livestock that we see today.”

According to the IATP report, a comprehensive set of government regulations to decrease dairy production would come with all sorts of co-benefits — for farmers and the climate. A supply management system to lower dairy output could allow companies to pay farmers better wages and allow the government to reinvest in less emissions-intensive systems of small-scale farming. These reforms could help strengthen rural economies and protect ecological systems. And ending subsidies to the largest dairy operations could free up funds that could go toward support and job training for out-of-work dairy workers.

To enact these policies, Sharma suggests consumers think beyond switching to locally produced dairy or almond milk. “In terms of individual demand, that’s just not going to move the needle,” she said. But calling federal elected officials about agriculture policy might. Holding global dairy corporations accountable is a political challenge, but Sharma is hopeful: “Political change is possible, it’s achievable,” she said. “We just have to create it.”

Agriculture and livestock: Are they victims or perpetrators of climate change?

June 11, 2020 /
LAST MODIFIED: 01:54 AM, June 11, 2020

Though much of the world is focused on transitioning away from fossil fuels as a way to fight climate change, there are other often overlooked contributors to the conundrum resulting from climate change. Two of them are agriculture and livestock. Sure, they provide us with the food we eat every day. But cumulatively, they are also the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels.

While the majority of global warming activities give off carbon dioxide, the agricultural sector primarily releases methane, which is a greenhouse gas 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. The source is mainly rice that is grown on flooded fields with depleted dissolved oxygen. In the absence of oxygen, organic matter in the soil decomposes and produces methane that escapes into the atmosphere. Rising temperatures would cause rice cultivation to release even more methane.

Another source of methane is ruminants, particularly cows and goats. As part of their digestion cycle, they expel intestinal gases, mostly methane, via belches. Methane can also escape from stored manure and organic waste in landfills. If manure is stored as a liquid or slurry in ponds, tanks or pits, it decomposes anaerobically (in the absence of air) and emits a prodigious amount of methane. However, when handled as a solid or deposited naturally on grassland, manure decomposes aerobically and creates negligible methane emissions. Ruminants, manure and rice cultivation account for almost 25 percent of anthropogenic methane emissions.

One of the methods of reducing methane emissions from rice fields, as suggested by scientists at the World Resources Institute, is to plant rice in a raised bed and flood only the furrows. This method has the potential to cut methane emissions in half.

Controlling methane emissions from ruminants is more difficult than trimming or regulating methane emissions from fossil fuels. A large number of mitigation options—namely, diet manipulation, vaccines, chemical additives and genetic selection—have been proposed. They have different efficiencies in lowering production of intestinal methane.

Methane emissions from manure depend on temperature and storage duration. Results from typical Canadian farms indicate that use of underground manure storage tanks, maintained at lower temperatures, lessens methane emissions. Additionally, farmers found that if they clean the tanks regularly, it took longer for methane-producing organisms to grow back. Consequently, methane emissions decrease substantially.

As for agriculture, according to a report of the United Nations published last year, about 50 percent of the Earth’s cultivable land is dedicated to growing crops for humans and roughly 30 percent is used to grow grain for livestock. Given how much land it takes to grow food to feed livestock, a very vocal segment of environmentalists insist that “meat is heat” and encourage consumers to go vegan.

Moreover, in line with the projected population growth, global demand for food is expected to grow by up to 70 percent in the coming decades. This substantial increase in demand would require clearing more space for agriculture and cattle grazing, so that the per capita threshold of land required for a nation to be self-sufficient in food production could be maintained. Vast swaths of the Amazon Rainforest, along with lands and forests in other places, are already being cleared for growing crops and grazing cattle. If current trends continue, most of our planet’s remaining land and forests would need to be cleared to feed the world.

Deforestation and land degradation indirectly contribute to the negative impacts of atmospheric carbon dioxide. One of the main reasons for this is because forests are natural carbon sinks. They absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it into oxygen that we breathe in. Hence, by cutting down big areas of forest without replacing the trees that are removed, we are causing an inadvertent change in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Several studies indicate that planting more than two billion acres of trees could remove two-thirds of all the carbon dioxide that human activity has pumped into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Trees also recharge the water table and create microclimates that increase local rainfall. In addition, deforestation puts biodiversity at risk, further undermining nature’s ability to cope with the impacts of climate, for example absorbing heavy rainfall.

Clearly, agriculture in general, and livestock in particular, contribute considerably to climate change. Nevertheless, climate change is also a major threat to the sustainability of livestock globally. An increase in air temperature as a result of global warming directly affects milk and meat production, reproductive efficiency and health of the animals. Also, excessive heat would reduce their body size and fat thickness.

Agriculture is also highly vulnerable to climate change. It is affecting food security by raising the risks to food supply due to heat waves, drought, flood, storms, soil depletion and desertification. Over the coming dozen years or so, farmers in developing countries, especially in South and Southeast Asia, will be the ones to bear the brunt of global warming, as per a recent report of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN.

It could, therefore, be said that agriculture and livestock farming are caught in a vicious cycle that makes them both victims and perpetrators of the harmful effects of climate change. Most of the times when agriculture perpetrates its crimes, it is not even contributing to feeding the ever-increasing world population. Instead, a good portion of the agricultural products are consumed by livestock—mostly bovines—which demonstrates this paradox.

How do we solve this complex problem? The solution obviously requires a coherent and integrated approach to climate change, energy usage and food security. Faced with global warming, competition for scarce resources, and inaction by world leaders, we, the people, have to transform the entire global food system and make it much more resource-efficient while continuously curbing its environmental impacts, including its greenhouse-gas emissions.

We also have to increase yields while curtailing dependence on agrochemicals. Besides, we should minimise food waste, cut down consumption of resource-intensive and greenhouse gas-producing foods, notably meat, and switch to climate-friendly vegetables, such as the nutritionally rich seaweed kelp. Farming kelp is beneficial for the ocean.

Furthermore, employing sustainable practices, like organic agriculture, has enormous potential to help in the fight against global warming, whereas maintaining the status quo with widespread industrial agricultural practices will continue to be terribly detrimental to the climate. In short, making agriculture and livestock industries and all associated activities sustainable is the answer to win the battle against global warming, as well as accelerate the transition to a healthier and more just society.


Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Scientists lock horns over climate change impact of cattle

The livestock industry says the standard method of calculating the global warming contribution of methane significantly overstates the impact of cattle and is calling for policy changes that could slash the emissions counted against the industry.

While some scientists are backing the proposed change, others argue it could lead to an overly optimistic assessment of the climate change contribution of the industry, which committed in 2017 to achieve net zero emissions by 2030.

Due to a series of droughts, the national cattle herd has shrunk 12 per cent in the past 20 years.
Due to a series of droughts, the national cattle herd has shrunk 12 per cent in the past 20 years.CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN.

Livestock are the main contributor to agriculture sector emissions. Cows’ gassy burps are loaded with methane, a byproduct of digesting grass. Last year agriculture emissions accounted for 12.9 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse gas output, down 5.8 per cent as farmers reduced their stock due to drought.

In 1997 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agreed on a methodology to account for the global warming potential of greenhouse emissions over a 100-year time frame, known as the GWP100.

However, some scientists promote a new accounting methodology known as GWP Star, which counts the global warming potential of greenhouse gases over 20 years.

Methane emissions break down in the atmosphere over 12 years, much quicker than carbon dioxide, which takes 100 years to break down.

Tony Hegarty from the Cattle Council said GWP Star could provide a “more accurate approximation of the actual warming” caused by methane over its lifetime.

“We are prepared to allow the scientists to do the analysis. It’s better for us to call on the government and international community to have a serious conversation. I’m very confident it’s a more accurate approach and it could make a significant difference to our [cattle industry] emissions,” Mr Hegarty said.

The GWP Star method says the greenhouse effect of methane should not be calculated in the same way as carbon dioxide. Under this methodology, when an industry increases above the baseline of emissions starting in 1997, that is counted as growth.

But significantly, a decrease below the 1997 baseline is counted as emission reduction. In this way, when industry emissions fall below the baseline set 23 years ago, it can claim not to be contributing to additional global warming.

Melbourne University agriculture Professor Richard Eckard, who endorses using GWP Star, said the Australian national herd has declined by 12 per cent over 20 years and under GWP Star this would be recognised as net greenhouse gas reduction.

“This calculation shows that livestock in Australia have potentially contributed to a cooling rather than warming, relative to the period prior to 1997,” Professor Eckard said.

However, other scientists say the rate of breakdown doesn’t change the impact of a gas on warming if it’s continually topped up by grazing cows, even while emissions break down.

Australia National University Climate Change Institute director Professor Mark Howden said the atmospheric heating effect of methane “is not fundamentally different to carbon dioxide”.

“There’s a difference in the lifespan of the gases but because there are constant emissions the build-up in the atmosphere is the same,” Professor Howden said.

He said the 20-year accounting time frame also ignores historical emissions.

“GWP Star is trying to compensate for the different lifespan of greenhouse gases, but in doing so it actually grandfathers previous emissions levels (before 1997), which brings all sorts of problems into the system.”

Professor Howden said under GWP Star when an industry reduced its methane emissions by 12 per cent, it may claim to contribute to global cooling and “get a green light”, whereas under the existing GWP100 approach it would still get a red light – just slightly less red.

“These are pretty fundamental differences,” he said.

The Impacts of Climate Change and the Trump Administration’s Anti-Environmental Agenda in New Mexico

Rising temperatures associated with global warming have worsened drought conditions and intensified water shortages for the Navajo Nation in Thoreau, New Mexico, June 2019.

Getty/Spencer PlattRising temperatures associated with global warming have worsened drought conditions and intensified water shortages for the Navajo Nation in Thoreau, New Mexico, June 2019.

Just in the past three years, the Trump administration has attempted to roll back at least 95 environmental rules and regulations to the detriment of the environment and Americans’ public health. Moreover, the administration refuses to act to mitigate the effects of climate change—instead loosening requirements for polluters emitting the greenhouse gases that fuel the climate crisis. This dangerous agenda is affecting the lives of Americans across all 50 states.

Between 2017 and 2019, New Mexico experienced one drought and two severe storms.  The damages of each event led to losses of at least $1 billion.

Impacts of climate change

Extreme weather


Impacts of the Trump administration’s anti-environmental policies


  • In March 2020, the Trump administration announced its final rule to overturn Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for cars. These weakened fuel standards will lead to higher greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions and will cost New Mexico residents $215 million
  • The Permian Basin—the largest oil- and gas-producing area in the United States, stretching across parts of New Mexico and Texas—was found to be emitting methane at three times the national rate. Methane is responsible for one-quarter of greenhouse gas-driven global warming. In August 2019, the Trump administration proposed rolling back methane limits at oil and gas operations like those in the Permian Basin.
  • The Trump administration is attempting to gut climate considerations from major infrastructure projects by eliminating the “cumulative impact” requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act. This is concerning because New Mexico’s economy relies heavily on its agriculture, tourism, and outdoor recreation industries—all of which are highly dependent on climate and weather conditions.
    • Agriculture: Agriculture and food processing accounted for more than $10 billion of New Mexico’s gross state product and supported more than 50,000 jobs in 2012.
    • Tourism: In 2018, tourism in New Mexico generated nearly $10 billion in economic impact and supported more than 94,000 jobs.
    • Outdoor recreation: The outdoor recreation industry in New Mexico generates 99,000 direct jobs and nearly $10 billion in consumer spending.

Air quality

  • Mercury emissions in New Mexico decreased by nearly 84 percent from 2011 to 2017, yet the Trump administration just undermined limits on the amount of mercury and other toxic emissions that are allowed from power plants.

The Fast, Cheap and Scary Way to Cool the Planet

Risky Climate

Blocking sunlight with technology is feasible—it’s only a matter of time until someone tries it.

Illustration: Jonathan Djob Nkondo for Bloomberg Green

Congratulations. You’ve done everything humanly ­possible to cut carbon dioxide—to zero. But what if even that won’t be enough?

It’s one of the most uncomfortable realizations in climate research. Inertia in the climate system implies that even if emissions stopped, temperatures and especially sea levels would continue to rise for a long time. The logical conclusion leads almost immediately to the specter of solar geoengineering, an attempt to use technology to reflect a portion of sunlight back into space. The principle behind solar geoengineering is simple enough. With less sunshine coming through the atmo­sphere, the planet would invariably cool—and fast. At least temporarily. There’s even a natural analogue: the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. In June 1992—ironically, the same time as the pivotal Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit—global average temperatures were about 0.5C cooler than they would have been without all the ash and sulfur dioxide, SO₂, catapulted into the lower stratosphere by the volcano a year prior.

Alas, the millions of tons of gunk from Mount Pinatubo soon fell out of the stratosphere, temperatures shot back up—and they’ve been increasing since.

That leads to another thought experiment. What if some entity, be it an international body or a lone ­nation, decided to use large-scale tech to re-create the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption? The engineering would be straightforward: release SO₂ near the equator about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) up into the stratosphere. The SO₂ would turn into tiny reflective sulfate particles that would spread around the globe within weeks and linger for months. A bit of sunlight would be reflected away, and everything down below would be cooled.

This is the premise of solar geo­engineering via stratospheric aerosols. It’s fast. Unlike cutting CO₂, adding SO₂ cools the Earth within weeks, not decades. It’s powerful. Millions of tons of SO₂ could help offset the global warming effects of hundreds of billions of tons of CO₂. It’s also highly imperfect and risky. It’s akin to adding one type of pollution (SO₂) to help counter the effects of another pollutant (CO₂). Think of it as an experimental drug taken in a pandemic. It might show promise, but watch out for unknown side effects.

In fact, SO₂ is a harmful pollutant. Burning fossil fuels releases tens of millions of tons of SO₂ into the lower atmosphere, killing about 4 million people each year through heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. The resulting acid rain kills trees and melts medieval cathedrals. If all SO₂ emissions were to stop overnight, it would be a boon to human health but a setback for global warming because it cools the planet. Average global temperatures would rise by at least 0.5C—an eruption of Mount Pinatubo in reverse.

It was precisely this thought experiment that led to a resurgence in solar geoengineering research. Too little is known to actually do solar geo­engineering now, and research funding is less than $20 million a year. By ­comparison, the federal government alone spends more than $2 billion on climate research, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Of the few dozen climate scientists actively engaged in the research, most focus on computer models. Only a handful are conducting lab experiments. A Harvard group is working on an experimental balloon platform, as well as on alternatives to SO₂. Calcium carbonate has shown promise in models and the lab. (I was until last year the founding co-­director of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program.) Much more research is needed to make anything akin to an informed deployment decision, and any process of moving toward deployment will be messy.

Solar geoengineering is potentially so powerful that one actor might be able to lower temperatures for the globe. It’s only a matter of time before pressure will increase to do just that, regardless of how fast the world slashes CO₂ emissions. With more frequent extreme heat and weather, it’s not hard to foresee conditions miserable enough to make an attempt at a little relief seem worth the risk to some. Limited research is already making one thing clear: Solar geoengineering isn’t only technically feasible, it’s a bargain. Next to the trillions in costs from unmitigated climate change, and even the expense of cutting CO₂, solar geoengineering costs practically nothing. If anything, it’s too cheap. A program that releases SO₂ to decrease average temperatures by about 0.1C would cost less than $5 billion per year. This should prompt the world to prepare for its inevitability. Dozens of countries have both the capacity and possible motivation. The operative word is “when,” not “if.”

Today’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels greater than 23 million-year record

June 1, 2020
Geological Society of America
A common message in use to convey the seriousness of climate change to the public is: ‘Carbon dioxide levels are higher today than they have been for the past one million years!’ This new study used a novel method to conclude that today’s carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are actually higher than they have been for the past 23 million years.

A common message in use to convey the seriousness of climate change to the public is: “Carbon dioxide levels are higher today than they have been for the past one million years!” This new study by Brian Schubert (University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and coauthors Ying Cui and A. Hope Jahren used a novel method to conclude that today’s carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are actually higher than they have been for the past 23 million years.

The team used the fossilized remains of ancient plant tissues to produce a new record of atmospheric CO2 that spans 23 million years of uninterrupted Earth history. They have shown elsewhere that as plants grow, the relative amount of the two stable isotopes of carbon, carbon-12 and carbon-13 changes in response to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. This research, published this week in Geology, is a next-level study measuring the relative amount of these carbon isotopes in fossil plant materials and calculating the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere under which the ancient plants grew.

Furthermore, Schubert and colleagues’ new CO2 “timeline” revealed no evidence for any fluctuations in CO2 that might be comparable to the dramatic CO2 increase of the present day, which suggests today’s abrupt greenhouse disruption is unique across recent geologic history.

Another point, important to geological readers, is that because major evolutionary changes over the past 23 million years were not accompanied by large changes in CO2, perhaps ecosystems and temperature might be more sensitive to smaller changes in CO2 than previously thought. As an example: The substantial global warmth of the middle Pliocene (5 to 3 million years ago) and middle Miocene (17 to 15 million years ago), which are sometimes studied as a comparison for current global warming, were associated with only modest increases in CO2.

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Materials provided by Geological Society of AmericaNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Thousands of Species Are Fleeing to Earth’s Poles en Masse, And a Pattern’s Emerging

We know that global warming is forcing many animals around the world to flee their normal habitats, but now, an exhaustive analysis has shown marine species are booking it for the poles six times faster than those on land.

Drawing together 258 peer-reviewed studies, researchers compared over 30,000 habitat shifts in more than 12,000 species of bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals.

The resulting database, named BioShifts, is the first comprehensive analysis of its kind, and while the database is limited by our own, human research biases, the data we have certainly suggests marine species are following global thermal shifts much closer than land animals.

While land species definitely are moving closer to the poles as the planet heats up, this shift is “at a pace that is much slower than expected, especially in areas with warm climates,” the authors write.

In the review, amphibians were found to be moving up slope at over 12 metres a year, while reptiles seem to be headed towards the equator at 6.5 metres a year.

Insects, which incidentally carry many diseases, were found to be moving poleward at 18.5 kilometres per year.

Relatively, that’s a lot, but in the bigger picture, marine species were moving towards the poles at an average pace of nearly 6 kilometres per year, while land animals were only shifting upslope at a mean pace of nearly 1.8 metres per year (slightly faster than previous estimates for land species, but still comparatively slow).

This discrepancy between land and water could exist for several reasons. It might, for instance, be a product of temperature sensitivity. Air conducts heat 25 times less effectively than water, and many land animals can easily regulate their body temperature if they want.

On the whole, this would logically leave marine species and many ectotherms – cold-blodded species – much more susceptible to Earth’s fluctuating temperatures.

Plus, animals in the water can migrate a lot easier if the need arises. On land, human activities often impede the movement of animals. In fact, when animals were exposed to a high degree of anthropogenic disturbances, the authors of this analysis found they tended to move against the thermal grain and not with it.

This is consistent with the general idea that land use and climate change may force species in opposite directions, a sort of push and pull of re-distribution.

“On land, habitat loss and fragmentation due to land use changes may impede the ability of terrestrial species to track shifting isotherms [lines on a map connection regions with the same temperature],” the authors write.

“These complex interactions need to be accounted for to improve scenarios of biodiversity redistribution and its consequences on human well-being under future climate change.”

If the authors are right, and marine life is tracking along temperature changes more closely, it could have dire and far-reaching repercussions. Some of which we might have seen before.

During the Permian-Triassic Extinction, the most calamitous event in Earth’s history, researchers say very few marine organisms stayed in the same habitat as oxygen levels plummeted.

“It was either flee or perish,” according to oceanographer Curtis Deutsch of the University of Washington, and for over 50 percent of marine species at the time, it was unfortunately the latter.

Today, as temperature increases squeeze animals into ever-narrowing habitat ranges, those animals already swimming towards he poles are also at risk of running out of cooler water.

Of course, this is happening on land, too. Animals found high up in the mountains are said to be riding an “escalator to extinction” as temperatures and competition push them over the brink. It’s just that in the water this escalator seems to be moving faster.

“We suggest that commercial fishing may speed up the displacement of marine species distribution through resource depletion and population crashes at the trailing edge, whereas low constraints on dispersal in the oceans may allow marine species living close to their upper thermal limits to better track climate warming at the leading edge,” the authors predict.

As impressive and necessary as the new database is, however, the authors acknowledge it has serious limits.

Despite its comprehensive nature, the meta-analysis used to create BioShifts only covers 0.6 percent of all known life on Earth, and the animals we have researched tend to be the most charismatic, or important to humans, focused predominantly in the northern hemisphere.

So while we call this a global meta-analysis, it’s not really. Instead, it’s as close as we can get given the circumstances.

Still, we can only work with what we’ve got, and it looks like the animals we do know of are struggling to find new habitats in the face of a growing climate crisis.

BioShifts is a way for us to help track those changes so we can possibly predict what will happen next.

Detecting methane emissions during COVID-19

Detecting methane emissions during COVID-19
GHGSat uses data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite to detect emission hotspots in various regions – including the Permian Basin. The image on the left shows the enhanced methane concentrations over the Permian basin, while the image on the right highlights the exact facility in the Permian Basin leaking methane. Credit: GHGSat

While carbon dioxide is more abundant in the atmosphere and therefore more commonly associated with global warming, methane is around 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas. Given its importance, Canadian company GHGSat have worked in collaboration with the Sentinel-5P team at SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research to investigate hotspots of methane emissions during COVID-19.

Carbon dioxide is generally produced by the combustion of fossil fuels, while fossil fuel production is one of the largest sources of methane emissions. According to the World Meteorological Organisation’s State of the Global Climate report last year, current  and methane concentrations represent respectively 150% and 250% of pre-industrial levels, before 1750.

Owing to the importance of monitoring methane, SRON’s and GHGSat’s research teams have been working since early-2019 to detect methane hotspots. The SRON team uses data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite to detect emissions on a global scale. The GHGSat team then utilises data from GHGSat satellites to quantify and attribute the emissions to specific facilities around the world.

Their work has led to several new hotspots being discovered in 2020, for instance over a coal mine in China. The team have also detected methane emissions over the Permian Basin—the largest oil-producing region in the United States. The team observed concentrations from March-April 2020, compared to the same period as last year in an effort to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 activities on methane emissions.

Detecting methane emissions during COVID-19
GHGSat have worked in close collaboration with the Sentinel-5P team at SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research to investigate hotspots of methane emissions. The team uses data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite to detect emissions on a global scale, and then utilises data from GHGSat satellites to quantify and attribute emission to specific facilities around the world. This has led to several new hotspots being discovered including a coal mine in the Shanxi province, China. Credit: contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2018, 2020), processed by SRON

An initial look at these data suggest a substantial increase in methane concentrations in 2020, compared to 2019. Claus Zehner, ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission manager, says, “An explanation for this could be that as a result of less demand for gas because of COVID-19, it is burned and vented—leading to higher methane emissions over this area.”

Ilse Aben, from SRON, comments, “However, these results are inconclusive when using only Sentinel-5P data in the Permian Basin as the number of observations are limited.”

The spatial distribution of Sentinel-5P concentrations in 2020 and in 2019 both indicate local enhancements of methane concentrations in the Delaware and Midland portions of the basin. But higher-resolution measurements, such as those provided by GHGSat, are needed to attribute these enhancements to specific facilities.

The joint analysis of GHGSat and Sentinel-5P regional  data will continue to explore and quantify how COVID-19 is affecting emissions from the natural gas industry on a regional scale—all the way down to the level of industrial facilities.

Detecting methane emissions during COVID-19
This image shows GHGSat methane concentrations over a coal mine in the Shanxi province, China. Credit: GHGSat

Stephane Germain, CEO of GHGSat, comments, “GHGSat continues to work closely with ESA and SRON’s Sentinel-5P science team. We are advancing the science of satellite measurements of atmospheric trace gases while simultaneously providing practical information to industrial operators to reduce facility-level emissions. GHGSat’s next satellites, scheduled to launch in June and December of this year, will help improve our collective understanding of industrial emissions around the world.”

Eric Laliberté, Director General Utilization from the Canadian Space Agency, says, “The Canadian Space Agency is committed to developing space technologies and supporting innovative missions to better understand and mitigate climate change. The results achieved by GHGSat are already having an impact and we are excited to continue working with GHGSat and ESA to better understand greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.”

Claus adds, “In order to further support the scientific uptake of GHGSat measurements, ESA has organised, together with the Canadian Space Agency and GHGSat, a dedicated Announcement of Opportunity Call that will provide around 5% of the measurement capacity of the upcoming commercial GHGSat-C1, also known as the Iris satellite, to the scientific community.”

The Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite, with its state-of-the-art instrument Tropomi, can also map other pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and aerosols—all of which affect the air we breathe.

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Methane leak visible from space

Planting trees doesn’t always help with climate change

Reforestation is seen as a way to help cool the climate, sucking excess warming carbon out of the atmosphere. But it’s not always that simple.

Suddenly we are all being told to plant trees. The hope is that they will save us from the worst effects of climate change.

The idea is everywhere. The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has made a film arguing for extra protections for the world’s forests, and for the replanting of those that have been cut down. George Monbiot, a columnist in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, has founded a campaign called Natural Climate Solutions, which advocates restoring forests and other ecosystems.

This is not just talk. The UK government has planted millions of trees over the last decade, and has pledged another million between 2020 and 2024. Others have attempted far more dramatic feats: in 2016 one Indian state planted 50 million trees in one day, while in July last year Ethiopia claimed to have planted 350 million in a day. Even the UK’s Daily Mail, a right-wing newspaper not known for its climate activism, has just launched a campaign encouraging all its readers to plant a tree.

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Protecting existing forests and planting new ones are surely good things to do. However, scientists say we must not place too much faith in trees to save us. In particular, last year one research group claimed we can plant a trillion extra trees and remove a quarter of the carbon dioxide currently in the air. These figures have been widely criticised as overhyped and unreliable. Trees will definitely help us slow climate change, but they won’t reverse it on their own.

The underlying problem is that our society is releasing greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), that are warming the Earth’s climate to levels we have never experienced before. As a result the great ice sheets are melting, contributing to rising seas, and extreme weather events like hurricanes and droughts are becoming more severe.

Trees have emerged as one of the most effective methods for drawing existing carbon out of the atmosphere (Credit: Getty Images)

Trees have emerged as one of the most effective methods for drawing existing carbon out of the atmosphere (Credit: Getty Images)

The solution is to stop emitting all greenhouse gases, for instance by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources like solar power. Deforestation is actually one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide, because when trees are cut down much of the carbon stored within them escapes into the air – especially if the wood is burned. For instance, in 2017 land use changes – mostly deforestation – contributed four billion tonnes of CO2 emissions to the global total of 41 billion tonnes of CO2. In other words, if we stopped cutting down trees we would cut our annual emissions by about 10%.

However, simply stopping all our emissions is no longer enough. At this point we have emitted so much CO2, and left emissions cuts so late, that we are almost certain to miss our targets of limiting warming to 1.5C or 2C. That means we must also find ways to actively remove CO2 from the air.

So long as a tree lives, that carbon stays within it – and trees can live for decades or centuries

All sorts of technological approaches have been proposed, but trees are an obvious contributor. New trees can either be planted in regions that have been deforested (reforestation) or in places that have never had them before (afforestation). As the trees grow they pull in CO2 through their leaves and convert it into carbohydrates, which they use to grow. So long as a tree lives, that carbon stays within it – and trees can live for decades or centuries. Trees are a natural “carbon sink”. It follows that we should both stop chopping down forests – especially tropical ones like the Amazon, which store huge amounts of carbon – and start planting more.

By some estimates, trees can be an enormous carbon sink. A study published in July 2019, led by Thomas Crowther of ETH-Zurich in Switzerland, estimated the world has room for an extra 0.9 billion hectares of forestOnce those trees had matured, they could store 752 billion tonnes of CO2. Planting trees, the team wrote, is “one of the most effective carbon drawdown solutions to date”.

This finding has had immediate, fierce pushback from other climate scientists. In October 2019, the journal Science published four highly critical comments. These argued that the researchers had overestimated the carbon trees could store – by a factor of five. They also highlighted multiple mistakes. For instance, much of the land Crowther described as “available” for tree planting already has plants growing on it, all of them storing carbon, many of which would have to be removed, according to Sonia Seneviratne of ETH-Zurich and her colleagues.

Replanting trees nearer the poles is not as effective at drawing back carbon as trees planted in the tropics (Credit: Getty Images)

Replanting trees nearer the poles is not as effective at drawing back carbon as trees planted in the tropics (Credit: Getty Images)

There are also deeper problems, because trees have more than one way to affect the climate.

The first issue is that trees are dark, at least compared to other things that might blanket the land, such as grass or snow. As a result, planting more trees typically makes the land darker. Since dark surfaces absorb more heat, a dark tree-covered surface will trap more of the Sun’s heat – and warm the local climate.

As a result, there is a delicate balance between trees’ ability to take in CO2, reducing warming, and their tendency to trap additional heat and thus create warming. This means planting trees only helps stop climate change in certain places.

Specifically, according to a 2007 study that has been repeatedly confirmed, the best place to plant new trees is the tropics, where trees grow fastest and thus trap the most CO2. In contrast, planting trees in snowy regions near the poles is likely to cause a net warming, while planting them in temperate climates – like that of the UK, much of Europe and parts of the US – may have no net effect on climate.

Trees’ emissions can also lead to warming if they react to form the greenhouse gas methane, or ozone

“You have to be careful where you do reforestation,” says David Beerling of the University of Sheffield in the UK.

Others say this problem is overblown. “They’re assuming that snow cover’s going to stay there with warming,” says Beverly Law of Oregon State University in Corvallis. She points out that the polar regions are warming faster than the rest of the planet, so much of the snow may melt in the coming decades – in which case planting trees will not make the ground that much darker. “That’s been kind of a red herring that’s held out there a lot,” says Law.

The other thing trees do is emit volatile chemicals into the air. “That’s the pine-y smell you get when you walk through a forest,” says Dominick Spracklen of the University of Leeds in the UK. These chemicals stick together to form tiny floating particles called aerosols, which have complicated effects.

For example, the aerosols create a faint haze. This scatters sunlight back into space, cooling the planet. “Probably the more important effect is those particles act as seeds for cloud droplets,” says Spracklen. This creates more low cloud, or thicker low cloud, which also bounces sunlight back to space.

Planting trees can play a part in reducing carbon in the atmosphere – but it cannot reverse global warming on its own (Credit: Getty Images)

Planting trees can play a part in reducing carbon in the atmosphere – but it cannot reverse global warming on its own (Credit: Getty Images)

However, the trees’ emissions can also lead to warming if they react to form the greenhouse gas methane, or ozone, which is a greenhouse gas at low altitudes. For Nadine Unger of the University of Exeter in the UK, this is a major problem. “The mutual relationships between forests and climate are actually really rather more complex and not fully understood,” Unger told the James Lovelock Centenary conference at the University of Exeter in July 2019.

In 2014 Unger calculated that, by chopping down forests from 1850 to the 2000s and thus preventing them emitting volatiles, we have created a cooling effect that slightly offset the warming from greenhouse gas emissions. Shortly afterwards she wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times headlined “To save the planet, don’t plant trees”.

However, other reforestation experts are critical of Unger’s findings. “The overall effect is quite small,” says Spracklen, who has studied the effects of aerosols. “Then the carbon storage blows all the rest out of the water.” Law agrees, saying the effects of aerosols are also “a red herring”.

Natural climate solutions could lock up the equivalent of 23.8 billion tonnes of CO2 per year

So how much can trees really help us solve our climate problem?

In a 2017 study, researchers led by Bronsom Griscomnow at Conservation International, estimated the full potential of “natural climate solutions”. This includes restoring wetlands and other ecosystems, and minimising emissions from farmland, but the biggest contributors by far were preserving existing forests and reforesting degraded areas.

The team estimated that the natural climate solutions could lock up the equivalent of 23.8 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. That is a little over half our annual emissions, but they emphasise that many of the strategies they studied would not be cost-effective: a more plausible figure would be 11-15 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. This implies natural climate solutions could mop up about 30% of the CO2 we need to deal with every year.

For Law, it is one of the best estimates published to date. The researchers “really did a pretty good job”, she says.

When trees are cut down, it is important that the carbon they contain is not released again into the atmosphere (Credit: Getty Images)

When trees are cut down, it is important that the carbon they contain is not released again into the atmosphere (Credit: Getty Images)

The UK’s Royal Society came to similar conclusions in a 2018 report on greenhouse gas removal technologies. They estimated that reforestation could remove three billion to 18 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. These are significant numbers.

Uncertainties do remain, however. For instance, the climate will keep changing for many decades, and this will affect trees’ behaviour and growth – but we don’t really know how yet. “There’s still a question mark,” says Beerling. “Will they be limited by nutrient availability or increased fire or increased drought?” Similarly, planting trees in dry areas can cause water scarcity because they suck up so much – as China has discovered.

However, there are also surprise benefits of planting trees. For instance, a 2018 study suggested that large-scale tree planting in dry tropical regions would cause a shift in weather patterns, leading to more rainfall on land – enabling more plant growth and therefore more carbon storage.

The real uncertainties are not scientific, but socio-political

Also, planting trees is not just about stopping climate change. “As well as the climate emergency, we’re facing a biodiversity crisis,” says Spracklen. Planting trees can help with both, he says, “but only if we do it right”.

At the moment a lot of the trees being planted are monocultures of fast-growing commercial species like acacia or eucalyptus. These have “virtually no biodiversity benefits and may even replace something that was better”. It would be better to restore species-rich forests, he says. In line with this, Law has highlighted that planting rich new forests can boost local biodiversity, as well as improving water availability.

Areas that are now used for farming – such as rearing sheep on hill country – can be difficult to reforest  (Credit: Getty Images)

Areas that are now used for farming – such as rearing sheep on hill country – can be difficult to reforest (Credit: Getty Images)

The real uncertainties are not scientific, but socio-political. Put simply, where will people and nations allow the large-scale planting of trees? “As soon as you get down onto the land, there’s people living there and they have aspirations for how they want to live their lives that maybe don’t involve tree-planting,” says Spracklen. “There’s virtually nowhere where land’s just lying idle and you can just come along and do that.”

He points to the Welsh hills, which are severely deforested and consequently lacking in wildlife – but which are politically difficult to reforest because they are dominated by the sheep-farming industry. Similar conflicts over land use exist in all countries.

The message, then, is that trees can play a significant role in stopping dangerous climate change – provided we plant them in the right places. The challenge will be finding ways to fit huge new forests into our societies in such a way that people accept them.

Why a 17% emissions drop does not mean we are addressing climate change

A chimney in an industrial area of Sydney emits vapour June 22, 2009. Australia's government, facing Senate defeat of key emission trading laws, vowed on Friday to bring its climate-fighting regime to the upper house a second time, opening the door for a possible snap election.        REUTERS/Tim Wimborne    (AUSTRALIA ENERGY POLITICS ENVIRONMENT IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR24WOS
‘The COVID-19 pandemic is only a wake-up call.’
Image: REUTERS/Tim Wimborne
  • Restrictions imposed as a result of coronavirus have seen emissions fall.
  • They offer an insight into the significant changes that will be needed to bring emissions down to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
  • Long-term action and thinking is needed.

The global COVID-19 quarantine has meant less air pollution in cities and clearer skies. Animals are strolling through public spaces, and sound pollution has diminished, allowing us to hear the birds sing.

But these relatively small and temporary changes should not be mistaken for the COVID-19 pandemic actually helping to fix climate change. Quite the contrary: the pandemic that made the world stop offers a glimpse of the deep changes in lifestyles and economic structures that we need to implement if we are to effectively mitigate the worst of climate change.

The short-term effects are not in doubt. A new study in Nature Climate Change led by scientists from the University of East Anglia and Stanford has found that daily global CO₂ emissions in early April 2020 were down 17% compared to the mean level of emissions in 2019.

This finding backs up an earlier report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) which found that CO₂ emissions from fossil fuel combustion – globally, the main source of greenhouse gas emissions – in the first three months of 2020 were 5% lower compared to the same period last year.

But the short-term and long-term effects of pollution are different things, and a few months without driving or flying will do little in the long run. Climate change is caused by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Quarantine measures have affected emissions of these gases in the short term, and many places have seen a drop in air pollution. But these measures were not enough to curb the overall concentration in the atmosphere, which is still increasing. Why? Because molecules of these gases stay in the atmosphere for a long time: methane for around 12 years, for instance, and carbon dioxide for up to 200 years.

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Emissions declined, but it won’t last

The new Nature climate change study predicts that if some restrictions are kept throughout the whole of 2020 annual emissions reductions would reach 7.5%.

emissions carbon dioxide environment climate change coronavirus
Daily CO2 emissions fell sharply.
Image: Carbon Brief

This would, in theory, be great news for the environment, especially if we could maintain it for years to come. After all, in order to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5℃, we need to reduce global CO₂ emissions by 7.6% per year between 2020 and 2030.

But this level of emissions reduction will not last unless economic activity remains depressed. And as lockdowns end and people return to work, emissions will inevitably rise once again – this happens as activity resumes after every economic downturn, including the financial crisis of 2008.

Keeping economic activity depressed to April 2020 levels is not a feasible long-term strategy. But we could use this opportunity productively to steer our societies towards a new paradigm that truly addresses the core issue of the climate conundrum.

We need to restructure our economies

Fossil fuels are the basis of our economies. Our energy systems are built around them and surprisingly little has changed since the first oil shocks in 1973. Back then, coal, oil and gas accounted for 87% of the world’s total primary energy supply, while in 2017 these fossil fuels still accounted for 81%. Over that same period, the total amount of energy supplied more than doubled.

Yes, there is lots of new renewable energy, but this has been deployed alongside fossil fuels, rather than replacing them. All over the globe, there are still plans to build new coal-fired power plants and oil & gas infrastructure. Even countries like Norway, where fossil fuels count for only about 30% of the total energy supply and almost all electricity comes from hydropower, still often rely heavily on fossil fuel profits to fund welfare systems and pension schemes.

If we are to truly progress towards a low carbon economy, we must address the roots of the problem. For instance, how can we encourage further divestment from fossil fuels if the sector is still among the most secure and profitable investments? Or how can we build clean energy systems if we keep subsidising fossil fuels? Despite promises to phase out these tax breaks and other incentives, the richer G20 countries still provided US$127 billion in subsidies to coal, oil and gas in 2017 (remarkably, that figure excludes Saudi Arabia).

And how can we resume activity without “going back to normal”? We need long-term recovery strategies that value nature as the overarching framework within which we all exist, not a mere economic resource. To date, several post-pandemic recovery plans include generous help to the fossil fuel sector with no strings attached.

The pandemic is no climate change panacea. We now know that we can act collectively and adopt measures that significantly curb emissions – in the short term at least. But long-term change does not come about directly as a result of a crisis, but from consistent action changing what caused the crisis in the first place. The COVID-19 pandemic is only a wake-up call: we still have a lot of work to do.