It’s tempting to think these electromagnetic bursts could be used to predict when a quake will strike. Up until now, however, the cause of the strange bursts hasn’t been clear.
New research suggests that the key lies in the gases that get trapped in what’s known as a fault valve and can build up ahead of an earthquake. These impermeable layers of rock can slip across a fault, effectively creating a gate that blocks the flow of underground water.
When the fault valve eventually cracks and pressure decreases, carbon dioxide or methane dissolved in the trapped water is released, expanding in volume and pushing the cracks in the fault. As the gas emerges, it also gets electrified, with electrons released from the cracked surfaces attaching themselves to gas molecules and generating a current as they move upwards.
“The results supported the validity of the present working hypothesis, that coupled interaction of fracturing rock with deep Earth gases during quasi-static rupture of rocks in the focal zone of a fault might play an important role in the generation of pre- and co-seismic electromagnetic phenomena,” write the researchers in their published paper.
Using a customized lab setup, the team was able to test the reactions of quartz diorite, gabbro, basalt, and fine-grained granite in scaled-down earthquake-like simulations. They showed that electrified gas currents could indeed be linked to rock fracture.
The type of rock does make a difference, the scientists found. Rocks including granite have lattice defects that capture unpaired electrons over time through natural radiation rising from below the surface, and that leads to a larger current.
And the type of fault seems to have an effect as well. The study backs up previous research from the same scientists into seismo-electromagnetics, showing how carbon dioxide released from an earthquake fault could be electrified and produce magnetic fields.
Other hypotheses about the electromagnetic bursts include the idea that the rocks themselves could become semiconductors under enough strain and with enough heat, while other experts don’t think these weird bursts are predictors at all.
Until an earthquake is actually predicted by unusual electromagnetic activity – activity that happens a lot on our planet as a matter of course anyway – the jury is still out. But if this idea is backed up by future research, it could give us a life-saving method for getting a heads up on future quakes.
“As a result of this laboratory experiment, it might be possible to detect the electric signal accompanying an earthquake by observing the telluric potential/current induced in a conductor, such as a steel water pipe buried underground,” conclude the researchers.
“Such an approach is now undergoing model field tests.”
Fact-checkers are slamming Republicans and the right-wing media for repeating false claims that President Joe Biden’s climate plan would require Americans to drastically reduce consumption of red meat. While the rumors about Biden have been thoroughly debunked, these claims were sparked by a real, thought-provoking University of Michigan study that models how a shift toward plant-based diets would reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the climate crisis.
The right-wing claims originated from baseless speculation by The Daily Mail, a conservative British tabloid that thrives on viral posts, which was then taken out of context by right-wing politicians and personalities who jumped at the chance to throw red meat (excuse the pun) to the Trumpian base.
“Speaking of stupid, there’s a study coming out of the University of Michigan which says that to meet the Biden Green New Deal targets, America has to, get this, America has to stop eating meat, stop eating poultry and fish, seafood, eggs, dairy, and animal-based fats,” Fox News host Larry Kudlow said over the weekend. “Ok, got that? No burger on July 4. No steaks on the barbecue.”
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Of course, there are considerable gaps between Biden’s climate vision and the latest Green New Deal proposals put forth by progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The University of Michigan study is not part of the Green New Deal, but Kudlow baselessly threatened “middle America” with somehow being forced to grill “Brussels sprouts”instead of beef on the Fourth of July.
Multiple far right Republicans and commentators ran with it, sending out viral tweets and media stories falsely suggesting that Biden wants to control what people eat and would even limit Americans to “one burger a month.” (Donald Trump Jr., forever riding his father’s presidential coattails, bragged on Twitter about eating four pounds of red meat in a single day. Warning: Eating that much red meat at once can cause constipation and other health problems.)
These right-wing claims are ridiculous on their face, but the University of Michigan study that Kudlow and others took out of context is real climate science. After all, scientists say the global food supply chain is responsible for 26 percent of climate-warming emissions. While not connected White House climate policy, the study adds to a large body of research showing that reducing meat consumption — and, perhaps more importantly, reducing factory farming and mass beef production that destroys lush ecosystems in places like the Amazon — is essential for addressing the climate emergency. The study also models how a shift toward plant-based diets would drastically reduce climate-warming emissions in the United States.
According to federal data cited by in the study, the average person in the U.S. consumed about 133 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2016. If the average hamburger contains between one-third and half a pound of beef, that’s roughly equivalent to 300-plus burgers. While red meat (beef, pork and lamb) provides only 9 percent of calories in the average American diet, red meat produces about 47 percent of the food system’s greenhouse gas emissions. Consumption of all animal products combined, including eggs, dairy and fish, represents 82 percent of the nation’s dietary carbon footprint.Red meat produces about 47 percent of the food system’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Using this data as a baseline, the study considers four dietary scenarios in the U.S over the next decade. In the first scenario, the average amount of animal-based food products remains unchanged by 2030. In the second scenario, consumption increases slightly based on federal projections. In the third scenario, animal product consumption is reduced by 50 percent and replaced with plant-based foods. The fourth (and incredibly optimistic) scenario is the same as the third, except beef consumption is further reduced by 90 percent, a completely theoretical figure that conservatives took out of context.
If diets in the U.S. remain unchanged under the first scenario, the food supply would generate greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to about 646 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2030. However, if animal product consumption dropped by 50 percent and was replaced by plant-based foods, the food supply would produce 224 million metric tons less — the equivalent of taking 47.5 million gas and diesel vehicles off the road. That represents about a quarter of the emission reductions necessary to meet U.S. climate goals, although the Biden administration is now pushing for even greater reductions.
Cumulative emissions would drop by 1.6 billion metric tons from 2016 levels by 2030 if the U.S. reduced animal product consumption by 50 percent. Under the fourth scenario, where the U.S. hits the 50 percent reduction target while also reducing beef consumption by 90 percent, the projected reduction in emissions would be equivalent to about 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Again, these scenarios are completely theoretical; they are models of what the future could look like if we eat less meat and animal products. Of course, what the actual future will look like is completely dependent on the decisions that we humans make. To achieve a 50 percent reduction in animal product consumption, or to replace 90 percent of the beef we currently consume with plant-based alternatives such as soy protein and vegan meat alternatives, would require substantial changes to agriculture and the food delivery system.
Since there is clearly no government plan to mandate Impossible Burgers, changing the food system will require changes in consumer demand. In short, a large chunk of the population would have to choose to eat less meat.
Hints of this shift are already happening. Americans are eating more meatless meat and plant-based dairy alternatives than ever before, but nowhere near the scale modeled in the University of Michigan study.
After looking at the climate data, grilling Brussels sprouts or asparagus instead of ground beef and hotdogs might sound pretty tasty. You’ll need some protein as well, and while there’s plenty of meatless burgers to choose from nowadays, there’s nothing quite like marinating some old-fashioned grilled barbecue tofu. Who knows, your insides and the Earth might thank you.
Date:December 14, 2020Source:UiT The Arctic University of NorwaySummary:The moon controls one of the most formidable forces in nature – the tides that shape our coastlines. Tides, in turn, significantly affect the intensity of methane emissions from the Arctic Ocean seafloor. High tides may even counter the potential threat of submarine methane release from the warming Arctic.Share: FULL STORY
It may not be very well known, but the Arctic Ocean leaks enormous amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane. These leaks have been ongoing for thousands of years but could be intensified by a future warmer ocean. The potential for this gas to escape the ocean, and contribute to the greenhouse gas budget in the atmosphere, is an important mystery that scientists are trying to solve.
The total amount of methane in the atmosphere has increased immensely over the past decades, and while some of the increase can be ascribed to human activity, other sources are not very well constrained.
A recent paper in Nature Communications even implies that the moon has a role to play.
Small pressure changes affect methane release
The moon controls one of the most formidable forces in nature — the tides that shape our coastlines. Tides, in turn, significantly affect the intensity of methane emissions from the Arctic Ocean seafloor.
“We noticed that gas accumulations, which are in the sediments within a meter from the seafloor, are vulnerable to even slight pressure changes in the water column. Low tide means less of such hydrostatic pressure and higher intensity of methane release. High tide equals high pressure and lower intensity of the release” says co-author of the paper Andreia Plaza Faverola.
“It is the first time that this observation has been made in the Arctic Ocean. It means that slight pressure changes can release significant amounts of methane. This is a game-changer and the highest impact of the study.” Says another co-author, Jochen Knies.
New methods reveal unknown release sites
Plaza Faverola points out that the observations were made by placing a tool called a piezometer in the sediments and leaving it there for four days.
It measured the pressure and temperature of the water inside the pores of the sediment. Hourly changes in the measured pressure and temperature revealed the presence of gas close to the seafloor that ascends and descends as the tides change. The measurements were made in an area of the Arctic Ocean where no methane release has previously been observed but where massive gas hydrate concentrations have been sampled.
“This tells us that gas release from the seafloor is more widespread than we can see using traditional sonar surveys. We saw no bubbles or columns of gas in the water. Gas burps that have a periodicity of several hours won’t be identified unless there is a permanent monitoring tool in place, such as the piezometer.” Says Plaza Faverola
These observations imply that the quantification of present-day gas emissions in the Arctic may be underestimated. High tides, however, seem to influence gas emissions by reducing their height and volume.
“What we found was unexpected and the implications are big. This is a deep-water site. Small changes in pressure can increase the gas emissions but the methane will still stay in the ocean due to the water depth. But what happens in shallower sites? This approach needs to be done in shallow Arctic waters as well, over a longer period. In shallow water, the possibility that methane will reach the atmosphere is greater.” Says Knies.
May counteract the temperature effects
High sea-level seems thus to influence gas emissions by potentially reducing their height and volume. The question remains whether sea-level rise due to global warming might partially counterbalance the effect of temperature on submarine methane emissions.
“Earth systems are interconnected in ways that we are still deciphering, and our study reveals one of such interconnections in the Arctic: The moon causes tidal forces, the tides generate pressure changes, and bottom currents that in turn shape the seafloor and impact submarine methane emissions. Fascinating!” says Andreia Plaza Faverola
The paper is the result of a collaboration between CAGE, Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment and Climate at UiT The Arctic University of Norway, and Ifremer under the project SEAMSTRESS — Tectonic Stress Effects on Arctic Methane Seepage
Tue 27 Oct 2020 11.40 EDTLast modified on Wed 28 Oct 2020 00.36 EDT
Scientists have found evidence that frozen methane deposits in the Arctic Ocean – known as the “sleeping giants of the carbon cycle” – have started to be released over a large area of the continental slope off the East Siberian coast, the Guardian can reveal.
High levels of the potent greenhouse gas have been detected down to a depth of 350 metres in the Laptev Sea near Russia, prompting concern among researchers that a new climate feedback loop may have been triggered that could accelerate the pace of global heating.
The slope sediments in the Arctic contain a huge quantity of frozen methane and other gases – known as hydrates. Methane has a warming effect 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide over 20 years. The United States Geological Survey has previously listed Arctic hydrate destabilisation as one of four most serious scenarios for abrupt climate change.
The international team onboard the Russian research ship R/V Akademik Keldysh said most of the bubbles were currently dissolving in the water but methane levels at the surface were four to eight times what would normally be expected and this was venting into the atmosphere.
“At this moment, there is unlikely to be any major impact on global warming, but the point is that this process has now been triggered. This East Siberian slope methane hydrate system has been perturbed and the process will be ongoing,” said the Swedish scientist Örjan Gustafsson, of Stockholm University, in a satellite call from the vessel.Quick guide
The scientists – who are part of a multi-year International Shelf Study Expedition – stressed their findings were preliminary. The scale of methane releases will not be confirmed until they return, analyse the data and have their studies published in a peer-reviewed journal.
But the discovery of potentially destabilised slope frozen methane raises concerns that a new tipping point has been reached that could increase the speed of global heating.
The Arctic is considered ground zero in the debate about the vulnerability of frozen methane deposits in the ocean.
With the Arctic temperature now rising more than twice as fast as the global average, the question of when – or even whether – they will be released into the atmosphere has been a matter of considerable uncertainty in climate computer models.
The 60-member team on the Akademik Keldysh believe they are the first to observationally confirm the methane release is already under way across a wide area of the slope about 600km offshore.
At six monitoring points over a slope area 150km in length and 10km wide, they saw clouds of bubbles released from sediment.
At one location on the Laptev Sea slope at a depth of about 300 metres they found methane concentrations of up to 1,600 nanomoles per litre, which is 400 times higher than would be expected if the sea and the atmosphere were in equilibrium.
Igor Semiletov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who is the chief scientist onboard, said the discharges were “significantly larger” than anything found before. “The discovery of actively releasing shelf slope hydrates is very important and unknown until now,” he said. “This is a new page. Potentially they can have serious climate consequences, but we need more study before we can confirm that.”
The most likely cause of the instability is an intrusion of warm Atlantic currents into the east Arctic. This “Atlantification” is driven by human-induced climate disruption.
The latest discovery potentially marks the third source of methane emissions from the region. Semiletov, who has been studying this area for two decades, has previously reported the gas is being released from the shelf of the Arctic – the biggest of any sea.
For the second year in a row, his team have found crater-like pockmarks in the shallower parts of the Laptev Sea and East Siberian Sea that are discharging bubble jets of methane, which is reaching the sea surface at levels tens to hundreds of times higher than normal. This is similar to the craters and sinkholes reported from inland Siberian tundra earlier this autumn.
One of the most overlooked factors of accelerated climate change is animal agriculture. Could changes to the human diet help us slow down the climate crisis?Reading Time: 6 minutes
Animal agriculture has long left its mark upon the earth. Forests have fallen and grasslands trampled in favor of crops and pastureland. Now, however, this sector’s impacts are being felt in the atmosphere – carrying troubling implications for every living thing on the planet.
The agriculture sector is one of the biggest drivers of anthropogenic – meaning human-caused – climate change. Animal agriculture, which sees the raising and processing of ruminants, poultry, and marine life, accounts for some of the biggest sources of greenhouse gasses. Global temperatures rise as forest cover decreases, and oceans warm as they absorb ever-more carbon dioxide.
Yet there are solutions to these problems – among which is the adoption of plant-based diets. It is not too late for the world to take action against the perils of a changing climate, but time for action is now.
How Does Animal Agriculture Affect The Environment
Practicing agriculture does not necessarily come naturally to us as a species. For much of human prehistory, people lived in societies oriented around hunting and gathering. The earliest signs of agriculture can be dated at around 12,000 years ago, yet since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, agriculture has taken on an entirely new face, adopting intensive practices such as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) which foster truly heartbreaking conditions for farmworkers, animals, and surrounding communities alike.
Called humanity’s greatest mistake by some due to the resulting hard labor, diminished nutrition, and social inequality brought by agriculture, this system of food production now presents the world with a new quandary: environmental destruction on scales that can no longer be ignored.
CAFOs produce enormous amounts of waste, which collect in vast open-air lagoons that can be breached by extreme weather events or gradually seep into groundwater. Water pollution from CAFOs can cause algal blooms which can devastate entire marine ecosystems. Air pollution is generated from CAFOs as manure is vaporized, sending toxic wafts through the air to surrounding communities.
Vast fields of monocrops also cause a host of environmental effects, including air pollution. Pesticides and herbicides are sprayed in liberal amounts, which can cause a host of debilitating illnesses, including cancers, for farmworkers and surrounding communities. Soil depletion is also a serious looming issue. Monocropping, along with the overuse of agrochemicals including synthetic fertilizers like nitrogen and phosphorus, are denying fields a fallow period or crop rotation has the effect of leeching soils of their nutrients. These practices render soils far less productive over time. It takes hundreds, if not thousands, of years for soils to become abundantly fertile again.
Impact Of Animal Agriculture On Climate Change
Out of all the human activities that cause climate change, agriculture is one of the biggest contributors. Estimates as of 2020 put the sector’s global contributions at 37 percent. Below are a few key factors accounting for climate change emissions resulting from human-cased agriculture.
A full 50 percent of the world’s livable land – meaning land that is ice-free and fertile – is being used for agriculture. No other human activity takes up more space. In contrast, all urban areas account for around one percent of livable land use. A whopping 77 percent of agricultural land is dedicated to raising animals, including grazing and the land used to grow their feed, including vast monocrops of species like corn and soy. Surprisingly, this huge expenditure of resources and land use provides only 18 percent of the world’s calories.
Land used for any type of agriculture – be it livestock or crops meant for people or animals – is brought under cultivation by clearing forests and grasslands, which are carbon sinks due to their abilities to absorb carbon. Currently, forests consume roughly a quarter of all anthropogenic CO2, yet the more forests are slashed and burned to make way for pastureland or monocrops, the less carbon will be absorbed, resulting in accelerated climate change.
Farmed animals – referred to as livestock – generate over 14 percent of all anthropogenic emissions, with estimated totals hovering around seven gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emitted every year. The bulk of these emissions are due to raising cattle for meat and dairy, contributing 60 percent of total livestock emissions. These emissions are thanks to the vast amounts of resources cows consume, the land they require for pasture (in the case of beef cattle), and other manure they produce. Cow manure contains nitrous oxide and methane, the latter being one of the most potent greenhouse gasses due to its outsized ability to absorb heat.
Marine life, including fish, shellfish, shrimp, and other animals are taken from the seas in astronomical numbers. Nets, some of which are large enough to contain 12 jumbo jet airplanes, are dragged through the water or across the bottom of the seafloor, capturing everything in their path. Direct fishing activity, plus the energy expended to transport, process, and refrigerate carcasses amounted to an estimated total of 179 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses in 2011 – and this number likely will continue to grow as demand for seafood increases.
How Do Greenhouse Gases Affect the Climate?
In greenhouses designed to grow plants, the transparent glass structure allows sunlight into the greenhouse while preventing heat from escaping. The earth’s atmosphere functions in a similar way, with gas molecules acting like the glass. Certain gases are more effective at absorbing heat than others; these include methane, nitrous oxide, and perhaps the most infamous, carbon dioxide. These three gasses are among the main culprits of climatic warming and change caused by human activities.
One of the biggest drivers of global warming has been the release of carbon into the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil, and coal, which power many aspects of modern life. Even electric cars, which run on batteries and do not themselves generate carbon emissions, draw electricity from grids still run on fossil fuels (although the goal of using 100% renewable energy for electric grids is more achievable than ever). When carbon released from fossil fuel burning is released into the atmosphere, it binds with oxygen and forms carbon dioxide and begins trapping heat in the atmosphere. Because carbon emissions make up the vast majority (81 percent, as of 2018) of total greenhouse gases, they pose one of the gravest threats to climate stability.
Although carbon is the greatest emitted by volume, other greenhouse gases can be much more potent. For example, one ton of nitrous oxide – emitted by agricultural processes including the use of nitrogen fertilizers in crop production – is equivalent to nearly 300 tons of carbon dioxide.
Methane is approximately 30 times more potent in its ability to absorb and trap heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Can Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Animal Agriculture Be Reduced?
By far, the most effective way to reduce the animal agriculture sector’s greenhouse gas footprint is to significantly reduce, and eventually eliminate animal agriculture. While this might sound “extreme”, it is the state of industrial animal agriculture – characterized by inhumane CAFOs, waste lagoons teeming with pathogens and antibiotics, and requiring enormous land and feed inputs – which is even more extreme.
This is not to say that eliminating animal agriculture is something easily accomplished. Demand will have to decrease, thanks to people turning to plant-based diets. The ease of adopting these diets is not the same for everyone, however. Many lower-income neighborhoods in the United States are classified as food deserts, where a lack of grocery stores forces people to endure extremely limited options, such as gas stations or fast-food restaurants.
People in nations like the United States who do not live in food deserts bear much of the responsibility for reducing demand for animal products. Fortunately, plant-based options abound to replace animals in a wide range of products, from cheese to milk to burgers and sausages. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are two of the leading companies in the plant-based meat sector, helping the idea of plant-based meats go mainstream and helping people understand that it’s possible to achieve the BBQ-worthy tastes without the climate side-effects. Plant-based meats use up to 99 percent less land and emit up to 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Animal Agriculture And Global Warming
Flying in planes or driving SUVs have long been understood as having negative impacts on the global climate. While these are certainly deserving of critique and change, the agriculture sector deserves time in the spotlight. If industrial agriculture continues to grow unchecked, global warming will increase – with potentially disastrous impacts, the beginnings of which are being felt today. Methane, produced by livestock including sheep, goats, and cows, is a greenhouse gas with a terrific ability to trap heat in the atmosphere. The agriculture industry is responsible for fully 40 percent of the total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
In order to curb global warming, and keep the global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that global emissions will need to be reduced by around 40 to 50 percent. According to the U.N., the only way to achieve these reductions is to drastically increase forested land – which means reclaiming land currently under cultivation and to stop intrusions into existing forests.
Due to its profound impacts on the climate and environment around the world, agriculture may well be humanity’s gravest mistake – because it may be our undoing. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are seriously curbed, the world is going to be a far more difficult place to endure. Reducing demand for animal agriculture and adopting a plant-based diet is among the most important actions any individual can make.
The meat industry is under intense scrutiny for its climate impact, with beef singled out as the biggest culprit. But if you want to save the planet, opt for the salad. It’s that simple.Reading Time: 5 minutes
July is over and with it Burger King’s short-lived but much-touted experiment with low-methane burgers. Two weeks ago, an ad for burgers made from cows fed with lemongrass to reduce the climate impact of their burps went viral, garnering the company free advertising by virtually all major media networks as well as some well-deserved criticism. Now the ad, like all things viral, is on its way to being forgotten, and the allegedly low-methane burger will fade off menus. But the whole episode can tell us a lot about how meat producers are greenwashing their products.
Burger King, like other companies that sell beef, is beginning to feel the heat from global climate change, and they are responding to the climate crisis by presenting unsustainable products as environmentally friendly. Don’t be fooled. Any way you slice it, beef’s climate cost can’t be reduced with marginal fixes like lemongrass.
The viral ad announcing Burger King’s new “low emissions” burger is a joke—and a fart joke at that. It opens with a boy styled in a white cowboy suit with a guitar in hand. He kicks open a saloon door embedded in a gassy bovine rectum (yes, really!) and, backed by a chorus of two-stepping tykes, he honky-tonks his way through psychedelic pastures and rolling hills among farting woodcut cows. The kids dance past melting icebergs and above billowing methane clouds, before donning hats decorated with lemongrass tufts. “Since we are part of the problem, we’re working to be part of the solution,” Burger King concludes. But they’re only half right!
The scene sure is something, but the science is dubious. Cows mostly burp, not fart methane. That Burger King is sniffing the wrong end of the cow is, at best, a joke and, regardless, a reminder that the company is in the burger business and not science business. The 33 percent methane reduction the company promises by switching to “low emissions” beef is also misleading. The claim is not based on peer-reviewed science, and the alleged reduction only accounts for emissions in the final “fattening” stage of production—as opposed to a cow’s entire life—meaning its total contribution to reducing greenhouse gasses (GHGs) is probably closer to 3-4 percent. Tellingly, Burger King released the ad on the same day that scientists announced that global methane emissions have grown dramatically in the past two decades.
Burger King’s ad is just the latest example of a growing trend of greenwashing in beef marketing. Beef industry organizations such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Beef Checkoff Program regularly issuepress releasesandfactsheetstouting the “sustainability” of beef, while major beef producers publicly swear they’re cutting GHG emissions. And it seems to be working, with some major media organizations lapping up the message that “Low-methane meat is a thing now.”
It’s easy to see why Big Beef is working hard to cast their product as climate-friendly. Over the past two decades, the meat industry has come under intense scrutiny for its climate impact, with beef singled out as the biggest culprit. Livestock—between methane emissions, the production of feed, and other production costs—contribute about 15 percent of total global GHGs and, since cattle make up 40 percent of that, cattle alone make up about 6 percent of humanity’s GHG footprint. In the U.S., cattle represent 3.7 percent, or about 240,500,000 metric tons, of GHGs per year.
Beef advocates are mustering a defense of their climate impact under the slogan, “It’s not the Cow. It’s the How.” Some acknowledge the impact of large-scale, feedlot-fed beef, but encourage smaller-scale “regenerative” agriculture. These advocates contend that cattle grazing stimulates carbon sequestration in soils and that cows’ manure can substitute for carbon-intensive synthetic fertilizers, thereby offsetting methane emissions and making cattle GHG-neutral. Evangelists of regenerative agriculture argue that it could become the dominant form of cattle production. This is unlikely. Not only is the scientific community not sold on its climate benefits, but the system cannot be scaled up to supply low-cost beef to low-cost retailers and restaurants like Burger King. According to Matthew Hayek, Ph.D., who studies the environmental impacts of our food system at New York University, there simply isn’t enough land in the U.S. to graze all those cows.
For the commodity beef producers, meanwhile, their only option is to find ways of cutting emissions within existing production chains. Increasingly, they have resorted to changing cows’ diets to try and reduce their carbon footprint. Studies have shown, for instance, that feeding cows seaweed can potentially reduce methane emissions by upwards of 60 percent. The industry has been quick to use these studies to boast that they are part of the solution to global climate change.
But these methane reductions are theoretical, marginal, and impractical. Globally, most cows eat a standard diet. It is unclear that feed additives can be produced affordably at scale. Enormous monocultures of algae required for cattle feed may also have serious ecological costs. And, like Burger King’s sustainability claims, these solutions focus primarily on the “finishing” stage of production. To put it simply, there’s no such thing as a zero-emissions cow, and even a reduced-emissions cow produces far more GHGs than other protein sources. And none of this addresses the cattle industry’s other ecological impacts, like deforestation and contamination of waterways. This solution is also incompatible with regenerative agriculture: feed additives require standardization and scaled mass confinement, exactly the thing regenerative grazing is supposed to eliminate.
Big Beef is trying to put lipstick on the, er, cow. The emerging scientific consensus is that beef production needs to be massively reduced globally, and diets need to adapt if we’re to keep food production within planetary limits.
This moment of crisis should be a moment of transformation, not greenwashing. Whatever consumers choose to order at Burger King (we recommend the meat-free, actually low-impact Impossible Burger), we should not applaud solutions that trivialize the scale and nature of the problem. Big Beef must be regulated to ensure that its workers are safe and that the price of its product reflects its true cost to the public, workers, future generations, and animals. It should be taxed, and those monies should be invested in public projects aimed at environmental sustainability, GHG reduction, and the development of cellular agriculture that would allow consumers to eat beef without the cows and their burps. And, ultimately, industrial animal agriculture should be eliminated.
In the meantime, being a conscientious consumer is hard. We all make compromises. But if you think that eating Burger King’s “low emissions” burger is a real solution, you’re the sucker. Want to save the planet? Opt for the salad. It’s that simple.
Global emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, have soared over the past decade, according to two new studies that tracked growing sources of the odorless, colorless gas.
Environmentalists say that agriculture and transportation activities have boosted the amount of Methane in Earth’s atmosphere.Dago Galdieri / Bloomberg via Getty ImagesJuly 14, 2020, 4:17 PM PDTBy Denise Chow
Earth’s climate crisis is starting to look even worse than scientists had feared — in part because of just how much meat we eat and how we get around.
Global emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, have soared over the past decade, according to two new studies that tracked growing sources of the odorless, colorless gas. The increased methane, combined with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, could warm Earth’s atmosphere by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius before the end of this century — significantly above the levels that scientists have warned could be catastrophic for millions of people around the world.
Poulter and his colleagues found that since 2000, the biggest increases in methane emissions came from agricultural activities — particularly from livestock, such as cattle and sheep — and the fossil fuel industry, which includes coal mining as well as oil and gas production.
Human activities account for about 60 percent of global methane emissions, according to the researchers. Agriculture makes up roughly two-thirds of that, with fossil fuel production and use contributing most of the rest.
JULY 14, 202002:01
In the new studies, researchers analyzed methane emissions from 2000 through 2017 — the latest year for which complete global methane figures are available — and found that a record 600 million tons of methane were released into the atmosphere in 2017. Annual emissions of methane have also increased by 9 percent since the early 2000s, a pace that could contribute to more than 2 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2100.
A report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October 2018 highlighted that the planet has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius since the 19th century; it used 1.5 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels as a threshold beyond which the effects of climate change, including extreme heat and sea-level rise, become life-threatening for tens of millions of people around the world.
Another author on both studies, Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, said the amount of methane released into the atmosphere since 2000 is roughly equivalent to adding 350 million more cars on the road.
In 2017, methane emissions from agriculture rose by nearly 11 percent from the 2000-06 average, while methane from fossil fuels jumped by nearly 15 percent compared to the early 2000s.
Methane is released into the atmosphere when coal, oil and natural gas are mined and transported, but microbes also emit it in low-oxygen environments.
“Any place where there is little to no oxygen — wetlands, rice paddies, landfills, the gut of a cow — are all sources of methane,” Jackson said.
Overall, methane makes up a much smaller percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions than carbon dioxide does, but it’s of particular concern to scientists because methane’s molecular structure makes it more readily able to absorb thermal radiation.
“Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but it’s much more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide,” Poulter said, which makes the gas a key factor in global warming.
To curb methane emissions, countries need to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, in addition to reducing the number of harmful leaks from pipelines and wells, Jackson said.
Scientists are also studying how to minimize methane emissions in agricultural practices, such as altering water levels in rice paddies and experimenting with changes in the diets of cattle and sheep to reduce the amount of methane belched from their digestive systems. Burger King recently announced that it is adding lemongrass to the diet of its cows to reduce methane emissions with a lower-carb feeding regimen.
But slowing greenhouse gas emissions will also require bigger changes in human behavior, Jackson said.
“Diet matters,” Jackson said. “Here in the U.S., we have one of the highest rates of red meat consumption in the world. We don’t have to stop eating red meat necessarily, but eating less meat or eating more fish and chicken instead of beef will reduce emissions, too.”
“Our farmers are still producing food, oil and gas production hasn’t fallen much yet, and methane plays only a tiny part in the transportation sector,” Jackson said. “So while we may see a small decrease this year because of the coronavirus, methane emissions over the last decade are marching upward. And at this rate, we won’t see peak methane emissions any time soon.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.