Lake methane emissions should prompt rethink on climate change

Global methane cycle should be reconsidered in light of new research

Date:
December 4, 2019
Source:
Swansea University
Summary:
Study sheds new light on the impact of natural methane production on global climate change assessments.

A new study from Swansea University has given new insights into how the greenhouse gas methane is being produced in the surface waters of lakes, which should signal a rethink on the global methane cycle.

After carbon dioxide, methane is the second most important carbon-based greenhouse gas and its continuous increase in the atmosphere is a global climate threat.

Conventional research, including the assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has suggested that methane is produced naturally in oxygen-depleted environments such as swamps and wetlands. However the result of this new study, which is published in Nature Communications has now challenged these previous assessments.

The research team from the University’s College of Science analysed Lake Stechlin in north-eastern Germany and found that a significant amount of methane was being produced there in the well-oxygenated surface layer.

It was also discovered that as the methane gas is produced at the surface in direct contact with air, the levels of emissions that travel directly into the atmosphere are also significant.

The researchers also predicted that emissions from these surface waters are likely to increase with the lake size, and could account for over half of surface methane emission for lakes larger than one square kilometer.

Professor Kam Tang, of Swansea University’s Department of Biosciences said: “Our research shows that well oxygenated lake waters are an important, but long overlooked, source of methane emissions to the atmosphere. These novel findings open new avenues for methane research and support a more accurate global assessment of this powerful greenhouse gas.”

Lead author of the study, Marco Günthel said: “Methane emission in lakes is based on a complex network of biochemical and physical processes, some of which are still poorly understood. I hope our study will stimulate more research on this topic as it is needed to fully understand the global methane cycle and to improve climate change predictions.”


Story Source:

Materials provided by Swansea UniversityNote: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Marco Günthel, Daphne Donis, Georgiy Kirillin, Danny Ionescu, Mina Bizic, Daniel F. McGinnis, Hans-Peter Grossart, Kam W. Tang. Contribution of oxic methane production to surface methane emission in lakes and its global importanceNature Communications, 2019; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-13320-0

Cite This Page:

Swansea University. “Lake methane emissions should prompt rethink on climate change: Global methane cycle should be reconsidered in light of new research.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 December 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/12/191204124545.htm>

New Zealand begins genetic program to produce low methane-emitting sheep

‘Global first’ project will help tackle climate change by lowering agricultural greenhouse gases

Sheep outside the city of Christchurch.
 The New Zealand livestock industry has begun a ‘global first’ program to breed low methane-emitting sheep. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

The New Zealand livestock industry has begun a “global first” genetic program that would help to tackle climate change by breeding low methane-emitting sheep.

There are about six sheep for each person in New Zealand, and the livestock industry accounts for about one-third of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

The livestock industry’s peak body, Beef and Lamb New Zealand, already uses a measure called “breeding value” to help breeders select rams with characteristics they want to bolster within their flocks. Within two years breeders will be able to select rams whose traits include lower methane emissions.

“Farmers are more interested than I anticipated,” said a stud breeder, Russell Proffit. His family has been producing rams for more than 40 years.

“I’ve undertaken the [methane] measurements because I believe an animal that is healthy and doing well should produce less methane and I wanted to test that.

“I don’t know if that’s the case yet, but either way breeding for less methane complements what we are working to achieve on our stud. That is, more robust rams that require [fewer] inputs and make less demand on the environment.”

Breeders who want to produce low-methane rams will need to measure a portion of their flock in an accumulation chamber, where their gas emissions are measured. Sheep spend 50 minutes in the chamber, and must be measured twice with an interval of more than 14 days.

The resulting data is used alongside other genetic information to calculate a “methane breeding value”.

The pastoral greenhouse gas research consortium, which is jointly funded by the agricultural sector and the government, said the concept was to take advantage of variations in levels of methane emissions and research that found the differences were passed on to the next generation.

“This is a global first for any species of livestock,” the consortium’s general manager, Mark Aspin, said.

“Launching the methane breeding value gives New Zealand’s sheep sector a practical tool to help lower our agricultural greenhouse gases. This is significant. Up until now, the only option available to farmers wanting to lower their greenhouse gas emissions has been to constantly improve their overall farming efficiency.

“This takes us a step further – towards actually lowering sheep methane emissions, in keeping with the sector’s commitment to work towards reducing its greenhouse emissions.”

Progress via breeding could be about 1% a year, but it would be cumulative and have no negative impact on farm productivity.

Aspin said amounts of feed were the biggest factor that contributed to methane emissions, and the consortium was working on three technologies that aimed to reduce amounts of methane generated by feed.

“So by breeding sheep that produce less methane per mouthful eaten – as other methane-reducing technologies come on stream – the influence of these sheep on the national flock’s methane production becomes compounding.”

Beef and Livestock New Zealand’s chief executive, Sam McIvor, said recent research of 1,000 farmers found that information about reducing greenhouse emissions was among farmers’ top five priorities.

No more fire in the kitchen: Cities are banning natural gas in homes to save the planet

USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO – Fix global warming or cook dinner on a gas stove?

That’s the choice for people in 13 cities and one county in California that have enacted new zoning codes encouraging or requiring all-electric new construction.

The codes, most of them passed since June, are meant to keep builders from running natural gas lines to new homes and apartments, with an eye toward creating fewer legacy gas hookups as the nation shifts to carbon-neutral energy sources.

For proponents, it’s a change that must be made to fight climate change. For natural gas companies, it’s a threat to their existence. And for some cooks who love to prepare food with flame, it’s an unthinkable loss.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel, mostly methane, and produces 33% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas causing climate change.

“There’s no pathway to stabilizing the climate without phasing gas out of our homes and buildings. This is a must-do for the climate and a livable planet,” said Rachel Golden of the Sierra Club’s building electrification campaign.

These new building codes come as local governments work to speed the transition from natural gas and other fossil fuels and toward the use of electricity from renewables, said Robert Jackson, a professor of energy and the environment at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

“Every house, every high-rise that’s built with gas, may be in place for decades. We’re establishing infrastructure that may be in place for 50 years,” he said.

These “reach” or “stretch” building codes, as they are known, have so far all been passed in California. The first was in Berkeley in July, then more in Northern California and recently Santa Monica in Southern California. Other cities in Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington state are contemplating them, according to the Sierra Club.

Some of the cities ban natural gas hookups to new construction. Others offer builders incentives if they go all-electric, much the same as they might get to take up more space on a lot if a house is extra energy-efficient. In April, Sunnyvale, a town in Silicon Valley, changed its building code to offer a density bonus to all-electric developments.

No more gas stoves?

The building codes apply only to new construction beginning in 2020, so they aren’t an issue for anyone in an already-built home.

Probably the biggest stumbling block for most pondering an all-electric home is the prospect of not having a gas stove.

“It’s the only thing that people ever ask about,” said Bruce Nilles, who directs the building electrification program of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based think tank that focuses on energy and resource efficiency.

Roughly 35% of U.S. households have a gas stove, while 55%have electric, according to a 2017 kitchen audit by the NPD Group, a global information company based in Port Washington, New York.

For at least a quarter of Americans, it doesn’t matter either way. They already live in houses that are all-electric, and their numbers are rising, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s especially true in the Southeast, where close to 45% of homes are all-electric.

For the rest of the nation, natural gas is used to heat buildings and water, dry clothes and cook food, according to the EIA. That represents 17% of national natural gas usage.

But the number of natural gas customers is also rising. The American Gas Association, which represents more than 200 local energy companies, says an average of one new customer is added every minute.

“That’s exactly the wrong direction,” Nilles said.

States weigh climate change solutions

The nudge toward all-electric buildings is the type of shift Americans will begin to experience more and more in coming years. Last year, California’s governor signed an executive order directing state agencies to work toward making the entire state economy carbon-neutral by 2045.

California is not alone. New York, Hawaii, Colorado and Maine have economywide carbon-neutrality goals, and several more are debating them. More than 140 U.S. cities have committed to transitioning to carbon-neutral energy.

The natural gas industry rejects the notion that it should not be part of the nation’s energy future.

“The idea that denying access to natural gas in new homes is necessary to meet emissions reduction goals is false. In fact, denying access to natural gas could make meeting emissions goals harder and more expensive,” said American Gas Association President and CEO Karen Harbert.

The association calls the new zoning codes for new construction burdensome to consumers and to the economy. They also say it’s more expensive to run an all-electric home. A study by AGA released last year suggested that all-electric homes would pay $750 to $910 a year more for energy-related costs, as well as amortized appliance and upgrade costs.

But critics question AGA’s conclusions.

Amanda Myers, a policy analyst at Energy Innovation, a research nonprofit group focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, said AGA presumed high electricity rates because of unrealistically large increases in expected electricity use and made unusual assumptions for how any anticipated electric load growth might be met.

An analysis last year by the Rocky Mountain Institute found that in locations as diverse as Chicago, Houston and Providence, Rhode Island, all-electric new homes over a 15-year time frame could save residents as much as $260 a year compared with new homes with air conditioners powered by electricity and natural gas.

You’ll pry my cold, dead hands off my gas range

The selling point for getting away from natural gas may come from a type of electric range that, according to chefs, is just as good if not better than gas. As fundamentally attached as people might be to cooking with fire, induction stoves are making headway.

Long popular in Europe and increasingly trendy in the United States, induction cooktops are different from the kind of traditional electric range where coils become red-hot. Induction ranges use electromagnetic energy to directly heat pots and pans.

They are fast, energy-efficient and safe because there’s no open flame, and they are cool to the touch unless you’re a piece of metal.

As Reviewed.com puts it, they’re “gentle enough to melt butter and chocolate, but powerful enough to bring 48 ounces of water to a boil in under three minutes.”

The downsides are that induction cooktops are more expensive than traditional electric stoves, generally a third to half more. They also work only with pans with steel or iron bottoms.

Professional chefs say modern induction ranges are comparable to gas. The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, America’s preeminent cooking school, trains its chefs on both induction and gas stoves because they will encounter both types and must know how to use them.

“Some of the finest restaurants in Europe are often out in mountainous areas or places where there isn’t gas. They cook on induction and that works just fine,” said Mark Erickson, a certified master chef at the institute.

Regular electric stoves aren’t a deal-breaker either, said Erickson, who lives in a townhouse with one and cooks on it every night.

“If I were given the chance and if it were a choice of gas or electric, I would choose gas because it’s what I’m used to,” he said. “But in all honesty, it’s not the end of the world.”

Fixing Livestock Emissions Metrics

Are we looking at the livestock industry's GHG emissions holistically—and can a new framework help turn livestock into a solution for climate change?

Chemical maker DSM sees strong demand for methane-reducing cow feed additive

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Dutch specialty chemicals company DSM is expecting strong demand for its feed additive which limits the amount of methane burped into the air by cows, its contribution to the global fight against climate change.

Methane has a much larger effect on global warming than carbon dioxide (CO2) and reducing methane emissions could buy time to confront the much bigger challenge of cutting the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

“We see a lot of demand already, from food producers and farmers”, DSM’s Clean Cow program director Mark van Nieuwland told Reuters in an interview, even though the launch of the additive, Bovaer, is still more than a year away.

“Large (food) companies have clear climate targets, and they need farms to change to meet those. Also consumers are increasing pressure on farmers and many farmers themselves want to limit emissions.”

Swiss KitKat and Nescafe maker Nestle this month said it wanted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, while French dairy maker Danone has said it wants to halve its CO2 emissions by 2030.

Cows constantly burp up the powerful greenhouse gas methane but DSM says including Bovaer in a cow’s diet could cut these emissions by at least 30%.

“Giving this to only three cows will have the same effect as taking one car off the road”, Van Nieuwland said.

DSM expects to launch Bovaer in Europe either late next year or in early 2021. It is currently waiting for authorization from the European Union to label it as an environmentally beneficial product.

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The company estimates that Bovaer has a potential global market value of 1 to 2 billion euros and aims to expand into other markets soon after the European launch.

DSM has made a profitable switch from bulk chemicals to sustainable food ingredients and materials, growing sales of animal feed products to around 30% of its 9 billion euros ($9.8 billion) in total sales last year.

“We have to deal with methane in the next 5 to 10 years if we want to limit the rise in temperatures to 1.5 degrees”, Van Nieuwland said.

Bovaer cuts methane emissions when mixed into a cow’s feed by inhibiting an enzyme in the digestion process which normally causes the release of the gas.

After ten years of research the Dutch company says it has dozens of global peer reviewed studies backing its claims and showing no effect on the health of cows or the milk they deliver.

The trial will run from November until February 2020, and the results are expected to be applicable throughout Europe, DSM said.

“This can have a real impact and we want to make it as big as possible”, Van Nieuwland said. “The faster we move, the better.”

Why we must cut out meat and dairy

Jonathan Safran Foer: why we must cut out meat and dairy before… https://www.theguardian.com/books/20 19/sep/28/meat-of-the-mat. c#ftian Jonathan Safran Fo€r: why we must cut out meat and dairy before dinner to save theplanet Animal products create more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector, but we don’t want to confront this inconvenient truth: our eating habits are a problem

The Guardian

Jonathan Safran Foer

Sat 28 Sep 2019 03.00 EDT

Our planet is facing a crisis. But even when we know that a war for our survival is raging, we don’t feel that it is our war. Although many of climate change’s accompanying calamities – extreme weather events, floods and wildflres, displacement and resource scarcity chief among them – are vivid,

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personal and suggestive of a worsening situation, they don’t feel that way in aggregate. The distance between awareness and feeling can make it very difficult for even thoughtful and politically engaged people – people who want to act – to act.

So-called climate change deniers reject the conclusion that97% of climate scientists have reached: the planet is warming because of human activities. But what about those of us who say we accept the reality of human-caused climate change? We may not think the scientists are lying, but are we able truly to believe what they tell us? Such a belief would surely awaken us to the urgent ethical imperative attached to it, shake our collective conscience and render us willing to make small sacrifices in the present to avoid cataclysmic ones in the future.

In zot8, despite knowing more than we have ever known about human-caused climate change, humans produced more greenhouse gases than we’ve ever produced, at a rate three times that of population growth. There are tidy explanations – the growing use of coal in China and India, a sttong global economy, unusually severe seasons that required spikes in energy for heating and cooling. But the truth is as crude as it is obvious: we don’t care. So now what?

Of course there are some moments when the planetary crisis is acutely felt. Watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was an intellectual and emotional revelation for me. When the screen went dark after the final image, our situation seemed perfectly clear, as did my responsibility to participate in the struggle. And when that film’s credits rolled, at the moment of greatest enthusiasm to do whatever was asked to work against the imminent apocalypse that Gore had just delineated for us, suggested actions appeared on the screen. ‘Are you ready to change the way you live? The climate crisis can be solved. Here’s how to start.”

Among the suggestions were: tell your parents not to ruin the world that you will live in; if you are a parent, join with your children to save the world they will live in; switch to renewable sources of energy; plant trees, iots of trees; raise fuel economy standards; require lower emissions from automobiles.

A[ Gore in An inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. Photograph: Participant Media/Paramount Pictures

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There is a glaring absence in Gore’s list, and its invisibility recurs in 2017’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, with one minuscule exception. It is impossible to explain this omission as accidental without also accusing Gore of a kind of radical ignorance. In terms of the scale of the error, it would be equivalent to a doctor prescribing physical exercise to a patient recovering from a heart attack without also telling him he needs to quit smoking, reduce his stress and stop eating burgers and fries twice a day.

So why would Gore deliberately choose to leave this particular issue out? Almost certainly for fear that it would be distractingly controversial and dampen the enthusiasm he had just worked so hard to ignite. It has also been largely absent from the websites of leading environmental advocacy organisations – although this now seems to be changing. It is unmentioned in the celebrated book Dire Predictions, written by the climate scientists Michael E Mann and Lee R Kump. After forecasting existential climate disasters, the authors recommend that we substitute clotheslines for electric dryers and commute by bicycle. Among their suggestions, there is no reference to the everyday process that is, according to the research director of Project Drawdown – a collection of nearly zoo environmental scientists and thought leaders dedicated to identifying solutions to address climate change – “the most important contribution every individual can make to reversing global warming”.

What I am thinking of is the fact that we cannot save the planet unless we significantly reduce our consumption of animal products. This is not my opinion, or anyone’s opinion. It is the inconvenient science. Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector (all planes, cars and trains), and is the primary source of methane and nitrous oxide emissions (which are 86 and 3ro times more powerful than CO2, respectively). Our meat habit is the leading cause of deforestation, which releases carbon when trees are burned (forests contain more carbon than do all exploitable fossil-fuel reserves), and also diminishes the planet’s ability to absorb carbon. According to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, even if we were to do everything else that is necessary to save the planet, it will be impossible to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord if we do not dramatically reduce our consumption of animal products.

Why is this subject avoided? Conversations about meat, dairy and eggs make people defensive. They make people annoyed. It’s far easier to vilify the fossil fuel industry and its lobbyists – which are without a doubt deserving of our vilification – than to examine our own eating habits. No one who isn’t a vegan is eager to go there, and the eagerness of vegans can be a further turnoff. But we have no hope of tackling climate change if we can’t speak honestly about what is causing it, as well as our potential to change in response.

It is hard to talk about our need to eat fewer animal products both because the topic is so fraught and because of the sacrifice involved. Most people like the taste of meat, dairy and eggs. Most people have eaten animal products at almost every meal since

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they were children, and it’s hard to change lifelong habits, even when they aren’t freighted with pleasure and identity. Those are meaningful challenges, not only worth acknowledging but necessary to acknowledge. Changing the way we eat is simple compared with converting the world’s power grid, or overcoming the influence of powerful lobbyists to pass carbon-tax legislation, or ratifying a significant international treaty on greenhouse gas emissions – but it isn’t simple.

I certainly haven’t found it to be effortless. In my early 3os, I spent three years researching factory farming and wrote a book-length rejection of it called Eating Animals.I then spent nearly two years giving hundreds of readings, Iectures and interviews on the subject, making the case that factory-farmed meat should not be eaten. So it would be far easier for me not to mention that in difficult periods over the past couple of years – while going through some painful personal experiences, while travelling the country to promote a novel when I was least suited for self-promotion – I ate meat a number of times. Usually burgers. Often at airports. Which is to say, meat from precisely the kinds of farms I argued most strongly against. And my reason for doing so makes my hypocrisy even more pathetic: they brought me comfort. I can imagine this confession eliciting some ironic comments and eye-rolling, and some grddy accusations of fraudulence. I wrote at length, and passionately, about how factory farming tortures animals and destroys the environment. How could I argue for radical change, how could I raise my children as vegetarians, while eating meat for comfort?

I wish I had found comfort elsewhere but I am who I am. Even as my commitment to vegetarianism, driven by the issue of animal welfare, has been deepened by a full awareness of meat’s environmental toll, rarely a day has passed when I haven’t craved it. At times I’ve wondered if my strengthening intellectual rejection of it has fuelled a strengthening desire to consume it.

Confronting my hypocrisy has reminded me how difficult it is to even try to live my values. Knowing that it will be tough helps make the efforts possible. Efforts, not effort. I cannot imagine a future in which I decide to become a meat-eater again, but I cannot imagine a future in which I don’t want to eat meat. Eating consciously will be one of the

‘Rarely a day has passed when I haven’t craved meat’ Jonathan Safran Foer. Photograph: Christopher Lane

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struggles that span and define my life.

We do not simply feed our bellies, and we do not simply modify our appetites in response to principles. We eat to satisfy primitive cravings, to forge and express ourselves, to realise community. We eat with our mouths and stomachs, but also with our minds and hearts. All my different identities – father, son, American, New Yorker, progressive, Jew, writer, environmentalist, traveller, hedonist – are present when I eat, and so is my history. When I first chose to become vegetarian, as a nine-year-old, my motivation was simple: do not hurt animals. Over the years, my motivations changed because the available information changed, but more importantly, because my life changed. As I imagine is the case for most people, ageing has proliferated my identities Time softens ethical binaries and fosters a greater appreciation of what might be called the messiness of life.

There is a place at which one’s personal business and the business of being one of seven billion earthlings intersect. And for perhaps the first moment in history, the expression “one’s time” makes little sense. Climate change is not a jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table, which can be returned to when the schedule allows and the feeling inspires. It is a house on fire. The longer we fail to take care of it, the harder it becomes to take care of, and because of positive feedback loops – white ice melting to dark water that absorbs more heat; thawing permafrost releasing huge amounts of methane – we will very soon reach a tipping point of “runaway climate change”, when we will be unable to save ourselves, no matter how much effort we make.

We do not have the luxury of living in our time. We cannot go about our lives as if they were only ours. In a way that was not true for our ancestors, the lives we live will create a future that cannot be undone. The word “crisis” derives from the Greek krusls, meaning “decision”.

Future generations will almost certainly look back and wonder why on earth – why on Earth – did we choose our suicide? Perhaps we could plead that the decision wasn’t ours to make: as much as we cared, there was nothing we could do. We didn’t know enough at the time. Being mere individuals, we didn’t have the means to enact consequential change. We didn’t run the oil companies. We weren’t making government policy. The ability to save ourselves, and save them, was not in our hands. But that would be a lie.

Our attention has been fixed on fossil fuels, which has given us an incomplete picture of the planetary crisis and led us to feel that we are hurling rocks at a Goliath far out of reach. Even if they are not persuasive enough on their own to change our behaviour, facts can change our minds, and that’s where we need to begin. We know we have to do something, but “we have to do something” is usually an expression of incapacitation, or at least uncertainty. Without identifying the thing that we have to do, we cannot decide to do it.

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Forest fires in A[tamira, Para state, Brazil[ … ‘Our meat habit is the leading cause of deforestation, which releases carbon when trees are burned’ Photograph: JoSo Laet/AFP/Getty images

Climate change is a crisis that will always be simultaneously addressed together and faced alone. The four highest impact things an individual can do to tackle the planetary crisis are: have fewer children; live car-free; avoid air travel; and eat a plant-based diet. Most people are not in the process of deciding whether to have a baby. Few drivers can simply decide to stop using their cars. A sizable portion of air travel is unavoidable. But everyone will eat a meal relatively soon and can immediately participate in the reversal of climate change. Furthermore, of those four high-impact actions, only plant-based eating immediately addresses methane and nitrous oxide, the most urgently important greenhouse gases.

Some argue that plant-based eating is elitist. They are either misinformed, or knowingly taking the favorite emergency exit of privileged, performatively thoughtful people who don’t want to change what they eat. It is true that a healthy traditional diet is more expensive than an unhealthy one – about $SSo (f44o) more expensive over the course of a year. And everyone should, as a right, have access to affordable healthy food. But a healthy vegetarian diet is, on average, about $ZSo (f6oo) Iess expensive per year than a healthy meat-based diet. In other words, it is about $2oo (f16o) cheaper per year to eat a healthy vegetarian diet than an unhealthy traditional diet. Not to mention the money saved by preventing diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer – all associated with the consumption of animal products. Nine per cent of Americans making less than $3o,ooo per year identify as vegetarian, whereas only 4% of those making more than $75,ooo are. People of colour are disproportionately vegetarian. It is not elitist to suggest that a cheaper, healthier, more environmentally sustainable diet is better. But what does strike me as elitist? When someone uses the existence of people without access to healthy food as an excuse not to change, rather than as a motivation to help those people.

Different studies suggest different dietary changes in response to climate change, but the ballpark is pretty clear. The most comprehensive assessment of the livestock industry’s environmental impact was published in Nature in October 2018. After analysing food-production systems from every country around the world, the authors

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concluded that while undernourished people living in poverty across the globe could actually eat a little more meat and dairy, the average world citizen needs to shift to a plant-based diet in order to prevent catastrophic, irreversible environmental damage. The average US and UK citizen must consume 90% less beef and 6o% less dairy.

No animal products for breakfast or lunch would come close to-achieving that. It might not amount to precisely the reductions that are asked for, but

Special Report: The three young women racing to defuse a climate-change bomb

OVER THE NORWEGIAN SEA, Norway(Reuters) – Banking hard over the whitecaps off the west coast of Norway, the jetliner flying Dominika Pasternak and her fellow scientists descends so sharply that it seems for a moment as if the crew is about to ditch them all in the drink.

But the pilot, an unflappable veteran of Britain’s Royal Air Force, conveys a done-this-a-thousand-times confidence as the aircraft levels off at a nerve-shredding 50 feet above the Norwegian Sea.

“Three, two, one,” he advises over the intercom. “Now!”

And so begins the work of this giant airborne laboratory – a four-engine, 112-seat passenger plane stripped out and refitted with sensors that suck in air samples for analysis in real time.

Although they squint through the cabin windows as the plane makes its pass, Pasternak, 23, and her colleagues are chasing a quarry they will never actually see: methane, an invisible gas that poses a growing risk to the Earth’s climate.

When the United Nations hosts a summit in New York on Monday to try to shore up the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb global warming, calls to cut emissions will focus on a more familiar greenhouse gas – the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels.

But methane, another carbon-based compound, is emerging as a wild card in the climate-change equation. If CO2 has a warming effect akin to wrapping the planet in a sheet, the less-understood methane is more like a wool blanket.

Emitted from sources such as thawing permafrost, tropical wetlands, livestock, landfills and the spidery exoskeleton of oil and gas infrastructure girdling the planet, methane has been responsible for about a quarter of manmade global warming thus far, some models calculate.

For more than a decade, scientists have been documenting a mysterious rise in levels of methane in the atmosphere. And it’s getting worse: Earlier this year, data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that the rate of the increase surged by 50% in the 2013-2018 period compared with the preceding five years.

But the very urgency of the methane threat is also, paradoxically, what gives some scientists hope. Because methane is acting like a foot on the accelerator for climate change, then rapidly reducing the amount leaking from oil and gas facilities could, at least in theory, ease the pressure on the environment. That could buy time to confront the much bigger challenge of cutting emissions of CO2.

In the United States, environmental groups have sought to bring methane emissions down by pushing the growing fracking industry to take more stringent measures against leaks of the gas. But last month, the Trump administration proposed rolling back Obama-era regulations to curb methane emissions, saying the move would save companies money and remove red tape.

As the clock ticks, a network of researchers the world over is racing to find out why global methane levels are increasing so fast – and what can be done to stem the flow.

Here in the Arctic Circle, which is warming three times faster than the global average, Reuters accompanied three women in their 20s as they hunted for clues. Working separately but with the same goal, these researchers have staked their claim on a place where some of the most dramatic climate changes are starkly visible, and the biggest dangers may await.

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In their painstaking, sometimes solitary work, the young scientists wrestle with the intellectual challenges posed by the methane riddle. But for all three women, their work in the Arctic connects them to something deeper than science: a return to childhood joys of the natural world, and a powerful sense of purpose.

Pasternak, wearing a white T-shirt bearing the words “Climate: The Fight of Our Lives” and a stylized image of the Earth engulfed in flames, is clear-eyed about the stakes.

“I think it’s terrifying how much we are changing our planet, and how little is really done to counteract it,” she says. “We are guessing, but the more measurements we actually have, the better we can understand what’s going on.”

THE HUNT BEGINS

As the jet races over the waves, Pasternak’s gaze flickers between the cabin window and her laptop, which displays a rolling graph of data recorded by the plane’s instruments.

The clipped voice of the pilot, laconic as ever, crackles over her headset, “I can see rigs on the left.”

Pasternak, a Polish PhD student in atmospheric chemistry at Britain’s University of York, focuses on the target: a cluster of oil rigs rising from the sea like fortresses, their squat legs supporting imposing superstructures of derricks, helipads and cranes.

Operated by the Natural Environment Research Council, a British government science funding agency, the flight is one of a series of sorties that Pasternak and colleagues from several universities conducted in late July and early August from Kiruna, an iron mining town in the Lapland region of northern Sweden.

The plane moves in a deliberate path, passing back and forth at different altitudes to build up a profile of the atmosphere downwind of the rigs below. Securely strapped in against the G-force at low altitudes, Pasternak and the other researchers confer over headsets and monitor the readings scrolling across their screens for any sign of a spike in methane levels. Their concentration is palpable, chatter kept to a minimum in the rigours of low-level flight.

But after hours of methodically surveying the rigs, there is no sign of the kind of methane cloud they detected billowing from another platform the day before.

Frustratingly for Pasternak, the aircraft also narrowly missed a giant supertanker, its bright red hull bulging with domes used to store liquefied natural gas.

“They unfortunately got out of our range now, which is a shame,” says Pasternak, who had hoped to take a methane reading near the vessel. “They are hard to catch because they are very specialized ships.”

For Pasternak, the flight is more than a research trip: It’s the realization of a childhood dream. Growing up on a hillside outside the city of Krakow, she would awake to see a layer of pollution settled over the city like a shroud, then brave the smog to go to school in the valley below. Escaping to the pristine Bieszczady Mountains for horse-riding summer camps or to the old-growth Białowieża Forest, Pasternak promised herself she would find a way to protect the environment by pursuing a career in science.

FILE PHOTO: Methane bubbles are seen in an area of marshland at a research post at Stordalen Mire near Abisko, Sweden, August 1, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

As the plane makes its way back to its temporary base in a hangar in Kiruna, she is sober about the uncertainties.

“Not many people paid attention to methane until quite recently,” she says. “We don’t know enough about it to be able to tell how dangerous it is, but we suspect it’s very dangerous.”

TIPPING POINT

Although the Italian inventor Alessandro Volta is better known for designing an electric battery, he is also credited as the first scientist to identify methane, or CH4. Collecting gas seeping from the marshes on Lake Maggiore in 1776, he later showed the gas could be ignited with a spark.

More recently, scientists have quantified methane’s potency as a greenhouse gas. Although it is much less prevalent in the atmosphere than CO2, the scientists found, it can generate more than 80 times more warming – molecule for molecule – than CO2 in the 20 years it takes to dissipate.

Today, there is broad agreement on the trend showing a surge in methane levels, but there is far less consensus on why it’s happening. Although oil and gas facilities are the leading industrial source of methane, scientists believe that growing amounts of the gas seeping from tropical wetlands in Africa and South America could be the biggest single driver of the current methane surge.

As the burning of fossil fuels pushes global temperatures higher, methane-spewing microbes in fast-warming soils near the equator are going into overdrive, causing the wetlands to emit more of the gas. These emissions in turn feed more warming, in a vicious circle. Climate scientists call such loops “positive feedbacks” – although their effects are anything but.

In the long term, the Arctic could be just as dangerous. As the permafrost thaws, dormant microbes find themselves immersed in the perfect warm, wet conditions to begin producing methane in climate-altering quantities, just like their tropical cousins.

“The methane is then going to mix around the world multiple times,” says Ruth Varner, director of the Earth Systems Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, who runs a long-term methane study. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”

A LONELY VIGIL

In winter darkness, meters of snow cover Stordalen Mire, a spongy patch of Swedish peatland about an hour’s drive from Kiruna Airport. The ice on a nearby lake is so thick you can confidently scoot across it on a snowmobile.

But in summer, the snowpack recedes to slithers on distant peaks, wispy heads of cottongrass peek through the soil, and the sun rarely sets. On such a day, Kathryn Bennett, 22, can be found pulling the oars of a rowboat.

On the shore, bogs lie in wait for anyone who strays too casually from a precarious series of walkways made from planks.

“I have fallen in clear to the waist,” says Bennett, a postgraduate student in earth sciences from Medway, Massachusetts, and a member of the methane research program at the University of New Hampshire. Although she laughs, her expression suggests the dunking was amusing only in retrospect.

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If Pasternak is serving in the air wing of the methane army, then Bennett is one of the grunts – picking her way across the bogland day after day and kneeling at the water’s muddy edge, where tiny bubbles of methane burp periodically from a surface with a texture like used coffee grounds. Syringe in hand, she extracts samples of gas accumulating in floating, foam-reinforced funnels, which she will later test to determine how much methane they contain.

A few locals pass by in the distance picking cloudberries, and a dragonfly zips in jagged loops over the brackish water. Bennett keeps half an eye out for antlers, having been startled and delighted to see a couple of moose cooling off in the marsh two days before.

“It’s so wild out here, you never know what you’re going to run into,” says Bennett, who traces her love for the outdoors to a childhood growing up camping and catching frogs.

Even to a first-time visitor, something about the landscape at Stordalen doesn’t look right. The walkways have subsided in places as the ground has given way, meaning Bennett’s footfalls sometimes splash in the stagnant water – which she says has crept a little higher than during her fieldwork the previous summer.

The slumping is a sign that the underlying layer of permafrost that once kept the ground rock solid has started to thaw. On drier patches of ground, long, narrow cracks have appeared. In the marshland, new ponds have formed.

Researchers in other parts of the Arctic are witnessing similar changes. A team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks reported earlier this year how amazed they had been to find millennia-old permafrost in Canada thawing 70 years earlier than models had predicted, leaving depressions resembling those at Stordalen.

“If this continues to happen, we can’t turn it off,” Bennett says, her concern suddenly audible in her voice as she pauses by one of the bogs. “You can’t just flip a switch and switch to an electric car or solar panels. You can’t just stop the permafrost from thawing, because it’s already begun, which we see very clearly in places like this.

“Then it becomes: ‘Well, what can we do?’ As scientists, what we can do is just try and understand this system and make better predictions about how it’s going to change in the future.”

Although she draws some comfort from the contribution she’s making to understanding methane’s role in climate change, she’s also keenly aware that even by flying to Sweden from the United States, she’s adding to the emissions that cause it.

“Seeing really dramatic changes like this makes me think a lot harder about the individual choices that I make and think about how can we get other people to care,” she says, nearing the end of a nine-week stint in Lapland. “It hurts me to think that I fly all the way over here to study this, but then it’s so important to tell people this story, to understand, and tell people about what’s happening here.”

A CLIMATE “LEVER”

Climate scientists say the world must rapidly wean itself off its dependence on fossil fuels to stand a chance of averting the worst effects of rising temperatures. In the United States, oil companies argue that they can support a wider transition to renewable energy by providing natural gas from the fracking industry as a “bridging” fuel. Gas has already displaced much of the country’s coal-fired power generation, which produced more CO2.

But studies suggest that about 2-3% of natural gas escapes as methane during production, storage and transport – exerting significant short-term warming.

Alex Turner studies methane as a postdoctoral fellow in atmospheric chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. Because methane is such a fast-acting, relatively short-lived warming agent, cutting leaks of the gas would have a quick impact on the climate system, Turner argues. That might help prevent runaway climate change from kicking in before the world has managed to control CO2 emissions – by far the biggest driver of long-term global warming.

Slideshow (24 Images)

“Of the greenhouse gases, methane is a really big lever on near-term climate change,” Turner says. “Large fractions of emissions tend to come from a small number of sources, and if you can find those sources that emit a lot of methane, you might be able to make a huge dent in the total emissions.”

In 2012, a network of governments, scientific institutes, businesses and civil society groups founded the Climate & Clean Air Coalition to curb emissions of powerful, short-lived pollutants such as methane. Since then, the U.N.-backed network has funded research around the world, including Pasternak’s flight this summer.

Some big oil companies say they’re taking the problem seriously. Under pressure from activists and investors to show it is doing more to tackle emissions, British oil major BP Plc just announced plans to use cameras, drones and robots to try to detect and prevent methane leaks at facilities around the world, for example.

“We are wanting to do continuous measurements and monitoring in all our future big projects,” says Gordon Birrell, a chief operating officer at BP.

But some smaller drilling companies say they lack the resources that the majors can bring to bear on the methane problem.

“There are certainly countries and firms that are very resistant, but the issue has started to gain real momentum, almost from a standing start just a few years ago,” says David McCabe, a senior scientist at the Clean Air Task Force, a U.S. advocacy group. “It’s a case of trying to speed that up.”

FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL

Clad in a khaki shirt and shorts like an old-school explorer, Nina Lindstrom Friggens sets off through the dwarf willow shrubs clinging to a lakeside near the northern Swedish village of Abisko. Her mission: to understand how the hidden lives of trees will influence the future of the climate.

Kneeling at the base of a mountain birch, a stunted tree adapted to survive the Arctic’s incessant cold and wind, she flicks open a saw-toothed pocketknife and begins to dig.

Delicately, she lifts a lattice of roots between forefinger and thumb and uses the knife tip to point out minute white sheaths that have formed over the finest filaments: fungi that live symbiotically with trees under the soil.

The 26-year-old Danish-British ecologist has always been fascinated by Arctic landscapes, in part thanks to her childhood love of Philip Pullman novels set in frozen Norse fantasy worlds. Unlike Pasternak and Bennett, who are methane hunters to the core, Lindstrom Friggens works on a broader carbon canvas, working to piece together the interplay between soil, ice and vegetation that will determine how quickly greenhouse gases seep from these northern lands.

The fungi she studies form a biological version of the internet – what scientists have nicknamed a “wood-wide-web” – that allows trees to swap chemical signals and nutrients. As the Arctic has warmed, it has also increasingly turned from white to green, as saplings gain a foothold in the depressions left as the permafrost thaws.

That’s good news in terms of methane, because tree-covered land is likely to emit less of the gas, says Lindstrom Friggens, a PhD student in plant-soil ecology at Scotland’s University of Stirling. But there’s a big catch: The expanding root networks help to rapidly decompose ancient subsoil stores of carbon into vast quantities of CO2, setting new feedback loops in train.

How quickly thawing permafrost could push the Arctic’s production of methane into overdrive is still a subject of speculation. But the impact of warming on the region was made vividly clear earlier this month, when scientists jolted Swedes by announcing that the south peak of Kebnekaise, the large mountain not far from where Lindstrom Friggens was conducting her research, had been dethroned as the country’s highest peak.

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The glacier on the summit, which generations of Swedish schoolchildren have considered a permanent, majestic fixture of Scandinavia’s natural heritage, melted so much that it is now lower than the mountain’s ice-free northern peak.

Reflecting on the prospect of far greater climate impacts, Lindstrom Friggens finds solace in nature’s ability to endure.

“I quite like that it’s bleak and it’s rough; there’s a beauty in that somewhere – that struggle to survive in an environment which is throwing everything at you all the time,” she says.

A seagull glides low over the lake, and the immense landscape of water, sky and rock feels almost unfathomably old. A raw life force seems to hum inaudibly in the Arctic silence as Lindstrom Friggens reaches a path leading back to the research station that is her temporary home, where she will watch the endless summer days start to shorten.

“There’s so much life, yet it’s so harsh to survive here,” she says. “But it perseveres.”

Why methane emissions matter to climate change: 5 questions answered

natural gas line
REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk
Natural gas can travel over 1,000 miles from the well to end use. During that long journey, gas has many opportunities to escape into the atmosphere.

The EPA on Aug. 29 unveiled a proposal to rescind regulations to limit methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. Critics said the rollback will worsen climate change and air quality. Reaction from energy companies varied, with some arguing the limits are unnecessary while others supported the federal regulations.

Colorado State University energy scholars Anthony Marchese and Dan Zimmerle last year published an extensive study on the extent of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. They explain the sources of methane from natural gas and what this regulatory rollback could mean.

1. Once natural gas is extracted from the ground, how do the methane and other gases get into the atmosphere?

The U.S. natural gas infrastructure includes a million miles of pipes and millions of valves, fittings, tanks, compressors and other components that operate 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, to deliver natural gas to your home. Natural gas can travel over 1,000 miles from the well to end use. During that long journey, gas has many opportunities to escape into the atmosphere. This includes unwanted leaks from faulty components as well as intentional venting of gas from devices that use the high-pressure gas to open and close valves.

In addition, the compressors that are required to increase the pressure and pump the gas through the network are powered by internal combustion engines that burn natural gas; the exhaust of those engines includes unburned methane. Since the natural gas delivered to your home is 85% to 95% methane, natural gas leaks are predominantly methane. While methane poses the greatest threat to the climate because of its greenhouse gas potency, the other hydrocarbons present in the natural gas can degrade regional air quality and harm human health.

2. Why has it been difficult to determine the extent, or the rate, of methane emissions?

Because the natural gas infrastructure is so vast, it is not possible to measure every leak from every faulty valve or fitting. Indeed, we don’t even have accurate estimates of the total number of valves and fittings. The best way to estimate the total amount of methane emissions from the natural gas infrastructure is to perform as many measurements as possible from as many different types of components as possible. The reason that one has to perform hundreds or even thousands of measurements from each type of equipment is so that you can capture the high-emitting sources (the so-called super-emitters), which are low in number but their emissions are so high that they can account for 50% to 80% of the total emissions.

By making thousands of measurements, along with compiling our best estimates of the inventory of all of the types of equipment in the U.S. natural gas infrastructure, it is possible to estimate the total emissions from all U.S. natural gas operations with a reasonable degree of certainty, which we currently estimate to be 2.3%. That is, 2.3% of the natural gas that travels through pipelines is released into the air. We estimate that quantity of natural gas emissions represents a loss in revenue of over $1 billion per year for the industry, and it has the equivalent greenhouse gas impact as the annual tailpipe emissions from 70 million passenger cars.

3. What would the Obama-era regulations have required oil and gas companies to do?

The Obama-era regulations were put in place in 2016 to set emissions limits for methane from a variety of sources in the oil and gas industry. The 2016 regulations built upon previous regulations put in place in 2012 for emissions of volatile organic hydrocarbons (VOCs), which are nonmethane hydrocarbon gases produced by oil and gas operations. The companies that had installed controls for VOC emissions sources were not required to install any new controls because reduction in VOC emissions also reduce methane emissions.

The 2016 rule also included additional sources that were not previously covered in 2012, including hydraulically fractured oil wells, some of which can contain a large amount of gas along with oil; pneumatic devices at well sites and gas processing plants; and compressors and pneumatic controllers at transmission and storage facilities.

The 2016 rule required operators to periodically detect and repair methane leaks at new and modified facilities; older facilities that have not been significantly modified are not covered by the rule.

4. How do scientists determine whether natural gas is better for climate change than burning coal?

Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas, with more than 80 times the climate warming impact of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it is released. Studies show that if methane leaked at a rate of greater than 3%, there would be no immediate climate benefits from retiring coal-fired power plants in favor of natural gas power plants. The good news is that a 2.3% leak rate suggests that natural gas power plants are slightly more beneficial to the climate in comparison to coal-fired power plants. However, the results of our studies also showed that power plants could show more substantial benefit to the climate if the industry reduced the total methane leakage rate to 1%, which many of our industry partners believe to be achievable.

In addition, natural gas power plants can change output more quickly than large coal plants, supporting the integration of variable renewable sources, such as wind and solar power. Industry, and some environmental groups, see natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that helps with the integration of renewable energy into electricity systems.

However, there is one additional, clear difference between coal and natural gas power plants. For coal plants, almost all of the climate impact is due to burning the coal, while for natural gas, the climate impact is a combination of combustion and methane emissions – both leaks and venting. Changing how coal burns is very difficult. Reducing natural gas leakage is a very real possibility.

5. Why were some oil and gas companies supportive of the tighter regulations on methane emissions?

The EPA estimates that the proposed new amendments would save the oil and gas industry $17 to $19 million per year. While this may sound like a lot of money, it pales in comparison to the economic value to be gained by minimizing leakage. We estimate that reducing methane emissions from 2.3% to 1% would result in an annual revenue of over a half billion dollars per year, which is more than 30 times the estimated savings from rolling back the regulations. Many oil and gas companies recognize this fact, and they also recognize that regulations are needed to ensure that all companies are held to the same standard.

Our experience working closely with over 20 industry partners has shown that industry can provide leadership in sharing best operational practices, developing comprehensive leak detection and repair programs, piloting these new technologies and constructively engaging with the regulatory process. Our experience in Colorado, which has developed some of the nation’s strictest methane emissions regulations, also strongly suggests that government regulations are needed to ensure that best practices become standard practices.

In the end, we believe the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back regulations, without regard to their efficacy, not only will worsen climate change but also will affect the health and safety of U.S. citizens and undercut the natural gas industry’s efforts to produce and promote natural gas as a clean fossil fuel – a fossil fuel that integrates well with renewable sources.

Anthony J. Marchese is an associate dean for academic and student affairs, Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering; director of the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory; and professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Energy Institute Affiliate Faculty, Colorado State University. Dan Zimmerle is a senior research associate at the Energy Institute, Colorado State University.

WE’RE EATING THIS PLANET TO DEATH

DANIEL ACKER/GETTY IMAGES

THE UN’S INTERGOVERNMENTAL Panel on Climate Change released a dire report today arguing that humanity can’t truly fight climate change without addressing the land problem—habitat degradation, deforestation, and soils beat to hell by agriculture. We now use nearly three-quarters of the world’s ice-free surface and waste a quarter of the food we produce, all while the global food system contributes up to 37 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions.

In short, we have to fundamentally rethink how we grow crops and raise livestock. There’s no cure-all, and every potential fix is fraught with maddening complications. But if we can’t figure out how to feed our species in a more sustainable way, climate change will continue to accelerate, making it all the more difficult to grow enough food. Food systems will collapse, and people will die.

The fundamental problem is that we have finite arable land and an exploding population. And trends that are positive from a social perspective, such as the ascent of the poor into the middle class in booming economies like China’s, end up ratcheting up the demand for meat even more.

So let’s start with meat. Raising livestock for slaughter is, of course, not particularly good for the planet. Animals demand lots of food and water: A single cow might consume 11,000 gallons of water a year. And that cow burps up methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas.

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In labs around the world, researchers are working on an alternative, by trying to get meat cells to grow in petri dishes. Using vats controlled for temperature, oxygen content, and more, they are replicating the conditions inside a cow without the methane side effects. And that, they promise, will be far better for the planet than growing beef out in a field.

But the promise of a lab-grown meat that replaces livestock in a significant manner is still far off. No one has a fully operational facility churning out the stuff. That means there also isn’t much data to show how, exactly, it stacks up against factory farming. “If you’re growing cells, you have to provide them with oxygen and heat and food and clean their waste and all the rest of it,” says Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal geneticist at the UC Davis. “That won’t come free. A cow is keeping its body temperature and doing its own waste removal.”

Labs and cows also release different greenhouse gases. To grow meat in the lab, you need electricity, which means CO2emissions. That CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for thousands of years, whereas the methane released by cows lasts more like 12 years. Powering future lab-grown meat facilities with renewables will be essential to improving the climate-wrecking profile of meat.

But cows are not just raised for their meat. India, for example, has 300 million cattle, three times as many as the US, but most Indians don’t eat beef. What they do use is the dairy; in fact, they are the biggest producers of dairy on the planet. “I don’t have a simple solution for what you do with a country that has the most cattle on Earth and has the lowest beef consumption,” says Van Eenennaam. “Just saying eat less beef doesn’t take care of that problem.”

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There are also regional differences. A cow in one country is not fungible with a cow in another. Raising cows in Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa produces twice the emissions of cattle kept in Europe or the US, because animals in the latter countries are fed more nutritious food and are more likely to be vaccinated and medicated when they get sick. So they reach slaughtering age quicker, which means they have less time to belch methane.

Switching humans to an entirely plant-based diet would solve some of these problems, but not all of them. For one, clearing forests and peatlands—essentially sparser forests laid on a bed of slowing rotting organic matter—to make way for agricultural land destroys essential carbon sinks. Healthy forests sequester CO2 during photosynthesis and store it. In the case of mucky peatlands, they can sequester carbon for perhaps thousands of years.

Also, prior research has shown that increased CO2concentrations in the atmosphere can actually help crops grow. “But now we know that high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere decrease protein values in grain crops, and also some micronutrients like zinc and iron,” says Cynthia Rosenzweig, a coordinating lead author on the report. Lower protein in crops might then make it even harder to wean ourselves off the easy protein of meat.

So we’re caught in a brutal tension here: We need to protect and plant more trees to sequester more carbon, but we also need more land to feed a booming human population. “We can reduce our demand, or we can increase the amount of land we grow stuff on and the number of animals that produce food,” says Van Eenennaam.

Tackling this problem will require looking at every piece of the land-use problem individually, and thinking hard about how we solve each one. For example, one way to lower the demand for food might be to eliminate the massive amount of food that gets wasted every day. But the reasons why food gets wasted vary from place to place. In the US, consumers are responsible for a great deal of it, whereas in the developing world the supply chain is the bigger culprit. There, insufficient refrigeration can cause foods to spoil before they even get to the market. The solution? More refrigeration—which means more emissions and more warming.

“Raising cows in Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa produces twice the emissions of cattle kept in Europe or the US.” —Alison Van Eenennaam, UC Davis

Researchers are racing to develop solutions to the preservation problem—a clever spray, for instance, can double the ripeness window of avocados. Robots, if deployed widely, could help fill in labor gaps and grow fruits and vegetables more efficiently, for example using machine vision to determine optimal ripeness. All great ideas that are still very young.

“The products are coming out faster than the science,” says Gabe Youtsey, chief innovation officer of the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources division. “But there’s definitely a lot of promise there.”

But to make a meaningful impact on climate change, he notes, those new ideas need to be deployed not in isolation, but as part of a larger technological system. A robot that picks apples may help fill a labor gap and get more fruit to market, but that’s just one crop. Our whole food system needs to change, a sort of biotech awakening. So optimizing the supply chain to cut down on food waste, while boosting yields with optimal varietals could allow more food to grow on the same amount of land, preserving more habitats for reforestation.

The vast scale of this crisis can only be tackled through massive, perhaps unparalleled cooperation—everyone needs to find the solutions that work for their corner of the world. But by tailoring solutions to a community, researchers can capitalize on particular customs. In Madagascar, for instance, scientists have launched a program to get folks to ditch bushmeat and eat sustainably farmed crickets, which was already the tradition, but had been forgotten in the country of late. That would be a tougher sell in the US, where lab-grown meat might have a better chance of taking hold.

Changing our ways will be a massive political, cultural, and technological undertaking. But change we must, because we’re eating this planet to death.

Cows, carbon and climate change

Cows, carbon and climate change
© Getty

With record heat waves, costly fire seasons, rising sea levels, and superstorms wracking our planet, it is clear that human-caused climate disruption is causing major problems for all of Earth’s inhabitants. Fossil fuels have long (and correctly) been identified as the biggest culprits, with the majority of humanity’s atmospheric carbon contribution coming from burning fossil fuels — oil, coal, and natural gas — and reversing hundreds of millions of years of natural carbon sequestration on the part of swamps and forests. However, there is an increasing global awareness that animal agriculture also plays a major role in accelerating climate change.

Cattle and other domestic ruminants have a four-chambered stomach, including a fermentation vat (called a rumen) that enables the animal to use microbes to break down cellulose — the main component of wood, paper and cardboard — into sugar. This fermentation process creates methane, which increases atmospheric temperatures  25 to 84 times as much as carbon dioxide. Thus, cattle, sheep and other livestock boost the carbon dioxide absorbed by plants into a far more climate-potent gas.

Livestock belching, farting and manure emissions of this and other gases has been estimated to account for 14 to 18 percent of the total human-induced greenhouse gases that are responsible for climate change. The remaining 82 to 86 percent of carbon emissions into the atmosphere comes from taking carbon out of the ground and pumping it into the atmosphere, whether through equally-potent methane leaks from natural gas wellfields and pipelines or through burning fuels to produce carbon dioxide. Thanks to the combined effect of greenhouse gases from livestock production and fossil fuel combustion on the world’s climate, the survival of the planet’s life forms, humanity included, is now at risk.

But the livestock also convert and degrade lands, radically reducing carbon sequestration — the natural ability of the biosphere to soak up atmospheric carbon — creating an even greater climate problem than methane emissions themselves. This effect is most obvious in tropical rainforest areas, which are being deforested at an accelerating pace to create pasture lands for livestock. This upsets natural nutrient cycling, as soil nutrients present in rainforest settings quickly leach out of the soil. Following deforestation, the massive carbon banks tied up in rainforest trees, vines and shrubs are gone for the long term. This bankrupting of carbon reserves in the tropics is paired with a catastrophic loss of biodiversity, an environmental crisis co-equal to climate disruption in its severity and significance.

Less visibly but perhaps more importantly, livestock grazing on the world’s grasslands, shrubsteppes and deserts can cause even greater withdrawals from a carbon banking standpoint than cutting down the forests. Livestock grazing eliminates deep-rooted native grasses and wildflowers, replacing them with shallow-rooted annual weeds that thrive in disturbed environments and die every year, releasing their carbon back to the atmosphere. Annual weeds therefore have little ability to store carbon in the soil.

In addition, once rangelands become degraded through overgrazing, shrubs sometimes increase, but clearing these shrubs to stimulate forage production for livestock further cripples the land’s ability to store carbon.

Throughout the Intermountain West, heavy grazing by livestock flips the ecological switch that converts healthy native habitats to an annual weed called cheatgrass, by suppressing the native perennial grasses and destroying the soil crusts that otherwise prevent cheatgrass invasion. Cheatgrass is highly flammable, and the resulting high-frequency range fires can eliminate deep-rooted shrubs, accelerating carbon loss from the soil.

Restoring the 25 million acres of livestock-degraded and cheatgrass-infested rangelands in the western United States back to native shrubs and grasses could offset some 23 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions. Stopping the livestock-induced damage would allow the land to heal over time and regain its carbon-storing capacity.

Natural areas are the lungs of the planet, breathing in carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen. Personal choices by consumers (adding rooftop solar panels, eating less meat) can help, but they’re not enough to stem the tide. Returning half the Earth to nature would restore carbon reserves while also addressing the biodiversity crisis.

We need major policy initiatives like the Green New Deal to force decisive action, stabilize and slash carbon emissions, and restore healthy levels of carbon sequestration through the natural processes of photosynthesis. Major livestock reforms on America’s western public lands would be a key step forward in this effort.