I am thrilled to continue our 2 part series on greenhouse gas emissions, most notably methane, with none other than the @ghgguru himself, Dr. Frank Mitloehner. Did you miss Part 1? If so you’re going to want to start there first!
Dr. Mitloehner is a Professor and Air Quality Specialist in Cooperative Extension in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis. As we learned in Part 1 of this conversation, Dr. Mitloehner is an expert for agricultural air quality, livestock housing and husbandry and conducts research that is directly relevant to understanding and mitigating of air emissions from livestock operations. His research includes the implications of these emissions for the health and safety of farm workers and neighboring communities.
Jenkins: We saw an article that you shared about the EU considering meat tax to save the climate. What’s your take on that idea?
This is an idea of a minority at the moment and I think that Covid-19 will change everything. This virus is going to change us in such profound ways that we don’t even comprehend at this point.
People are going to the supermarket and for the first time in their lives they are seeing a supply chain problem. All of the sudden the things that we have always been able to buy simply aren’t there.
I think people will come to the realization that it’s not just the health sector that is really critical to a nation’s sustainability but that it is particularly the food sector. I think if we play it right and agriculture really toots it’s horn about it’s role in providing the food that we all need during this current crisis, I think there could be a change in the appreciation people have for agriculture and in particular animal agriculture.
When you go to the supermarket these days, you will see that it’s the beef, dairy, eggs, etc. that they are flying off the shelves! Then go take a look at how well the plant-based alternatives are doing… they are not flying off the shelves.
I hope that we begin to question how society treats animal agriculture overall. How much more regulations are people willing to put up with? Are the financial margins high enough for people to maintain in business? When we are tossing large amounts of milk, and there are high prices for meat in the super market yet the farmers are getting paid very little, when there is a strong demand but for some reason the revenue that is generated does not get back to the people who are producing the food…. that is a major problem. Farmers do not get paid for the work they do. They are not getting appropriate compensation.
I am very interested to see how all of this plays out, and whether or not this pandemic will actually change people’s perception of what’s really important in life.
Jenkins: Speaking of the pandemic, with industry and work commuting drastically reduced around the world, we have started to hear stories of how this may positively impact the planet. Do you think we will see a positive climate effect?
The impact that we are seeing is a short-term impact. We are seeing a reduction in emissions in different parts of the world that have been the most hard hit such as northern Italy and parts of China. As a result of the lock down, we are burning less fossil fuels and as a result we have fewer criteria pollutants such as NOx (Nitrogen oxides) SOx (sulfur oxides) volatile organic compounds such as carbon monoxide and so on… all of the gases that develop when you burn fossil fuels.
Once the lock downs are lifted, people will go right back to their former habits. They will return to their former work schedules and travel schedules and the reductions that we have seen will all be gone. Likely people will even overcompensate for being stuck at home.
Jenkins: If you wanted to clear up one important misconception about cows and emissions what would it be?
When a cow produces methane, that methane stays in the atmosphere for about 10 years. It is then destroyed by a process called hydroxyl oxidation. That’s a process that we’ve known about for a long time but it has never really entered the public discussion.
Hydroxyl oxidation destroys methane in about 10 years when it is converted back into CO2 again. So if methane has a lifespan of 10 years and CO2 has a lifespan of 1000 years, why would that be a good thing that methane is converted back into CO2 again?
The reason why the biogenic carbon cycle is a good thing, is because you are not adding new additional carbon to the atmosphere. What is happening is that you are actually recycling carbon. The carbon that becomes methane when the animal belches or when it comes out in her manure, that carbon that is in the methane originated in atmospheric CO2 and that’s what it will become again will become again once it is oxidized from animal methane.
This means that if you keep your livestock numbers constant, you are not adding any new additional carbon to the atmosphere and hence you are not adding any new additional warming. That is the part that is least understood by people who are critical of animal agriculture.
Biogenic methane is not new methane. It is not new carbon to the atmosphere, and hence it does not cause additional warming. This will take people, and the climate critics of animal agriculture, a little while to understand.
Jenkins: How can we help get this message out to the consumer?
This is a major challenge because it is a technical issue that is not easily explained or understood. I have colleagues at the University of Oxford in England, and colleagues in New Zealand among other places, who are proposing the use of a new way of accounting for methane from livestock: it’s called GWP*.
GWP* is a way of accurately describing the warming impacts of methane. If this were to gain traction, the world discussion around methane would change in a dramatic way. I think that it is very likely that this discussion will change because the way that it’s currently held is simply not accurate.
Imagine going to your bank and saying: “From now on, I will only talk about my income, I will no longer talk about my expense.” That is what we are doing with methane currently!
Right now we are only looking at one side of the budget: the sources of methane. We are leaving out sinks of methane even though they are almost balancing each other out, and that makes absolutely no sense. The sink processes are super strong and they must be accounted for. If they are not accounted for then the questions is why they are not being accounted for.
We have understood hydroxyl oxidation for a long time so why would we not account for that?
If we are truly concerned about warming, if we truly want to reduce our warming by 1½ degrees centigrade, if that is our true intent, then what is it that we need to quantify? What we need to quantify is the true warming impacts of methane sector and you cannot get those impacts by the units that are currently being used.
Picture this: The CO2 that is emitted by a power plant will stay in the atmosphere for 1000 years. If you start to increase this CO2 or decrease this CO2, all of the CO2 that you have already put out will remain in the atmosphere for a very long time. Now, if you reduce methane, that is a very different story. What we need to do with methane is not just look at how much methane is in the air right now, but we need to look at the rate of change for methane.
If we were to compare the methane production from the California dairy sector between the years 2000, 2010, and 2020, and we saw an increase, that would be a big problem. If the numbers were constant, the rate of change would be zero. Now, if our current methane emissions were lower today than what they were in 2010, that would mean that we have actually managed to pull out carbon from the atmosphere. That would mean that we have initiated a cooling process.
GWP* is the process by which we can assign an actual warming number to methane, and this can help us prove that animal agriculture could have a significant solution potential to climate problems… and that’s the direction that things are going.
Thank you Dr. Mitloehner for sharing your time and wisdom to help us better understand where we need to focus our attention for cleaner air and a healthy climate as it relates to animal agriculture while recognizing the important role animals plays in nourishing our world.