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Time for a cow tax? Buried in UN report is bad news about climate impact of factory farms

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Editor’s Note: This story was originally posted by Mother Jones. It appears here as part of the Climate Office collaboration.

During a debate on the Democrats’ new infrastructure bill in the Senate Chamber on Tuesday night, Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) spoke, positioned next to a sign reading “No Tax on the cows ”. There, she proposed an amendment banning Congress from imposing new “costly” regulations on clean air, and in particular methane, on farmers. His colleagues, including 20 Democrats, adopted it with an overwhelming majority.

On the surface, the maneuver was pure political theater. Livestock farms are indeed massive emitters of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas – through cow burping and the decomposition of vast manure reserves – but “there is no current regulation on animal flatulence “, such as Politics Noted. There are also no measures underway to tighten the notoriously loose Clean Air Act regulations for farms. Essentially, Ernst was protecting agricultural interests from a phantom legislative threat.

While Ernst, an established skeptic of accepted climate science, pitched a frivolous amendment, she flirted with a very serious subject: the contribution of our agricultural system to a rapidly changing climate. And if his stunt ends up being enshrined in law as part of the new infrastructure package, it could cripple the efforts needed to deal with this ongoing disaster.

Just a day before the Conservative pillar’s trolling on Capitol Hill, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report. Before being buried in the fog of the American news cycle, it made headlines with its chilling conclusion, all the more powerful as fires ravage the West and hurricane season looms in the making. is: global warming is “widespread, rapid and intensifying”. Some effects, like sea level rise, are likely to be blocked for at least the next 80 years, according to the report. Others, like the recurring and increasingly fierce heat waves that make it too hot for humans to be safe outside and threaten crop yields, can be dulled, but only if we make “steep cuts,” rapid and large-scale greenhouse gas emissions ”.

Buried in the report (until Chapter 5) and generating little media coverage, is disastrous news on the subject Ernst had been making fun of: the climate impact of our food system.

Although the IPCC opus does not detail emissions from food production per se, it does contain rich information on its impacts. Carbon dioxide, now shed through the atmosphere at its highest rate in 2 million years, gets most of the ink, but two other heat-trapping gases, methane and nitrous oxide, also powerfully contribute to the greenhouse effect. These gases are now floating at their highest level in 800,000 years, the report says – and are spat out in large quantities by factory farms, mainly linked to the mass production of meat.

Methane, in particular, may hold the key to deciding whether the earth continues to turn into a disaster movie set over the next generation. The main sources of methane include cow burps, cattle manure, and leaks from oil and natural gas drilling. These man-made methane emissions represent about 30 percent of the current warming from pre-industrial temperature levels. Less present in the atmosphere than carbon, methane traps heat at 80 times the rate of carbon in the first decade after its emission, after which it dissipates. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, persists for centuries. This means that today’s methane emissions have a disproportionate impact on the temperature patterns of the next decade – and reducing them could help stabilize the climate in the short term.

The bad news: Methane is pouring into the atmosphere at an accelerating rate. After increasing rapidly in the 1980s, annual global methane emissions stabilized for some time, increasing very slowly between 2000 and 2006. But from 2007 they picked up and increased at an ever faster rate since. . The causes of the recovery remain uncertain, reports the IPPC. Agriculture is probably not the biggest contributor to the recent methane boom, as the number of belching cows on the planet has held steady at around 1 billion over the past decade.

Meanwhile, the practice of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas, which exploded in the late 2000s, is generating massive methane leaks and is likely one of the main contributors to the recovery. The IPPC report concludes that animal agriculture and fossil fuel production play a role. Overall, according to a 2021 report from the United Nations Environment Program and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, fossil fuel production accounts for 35% of global methane emissions, compared to 32% for agriculture.

Even so, there is no doubt that cattle and other livestock are the main contributors to the methane that is currently heating the planet. Here in the United States, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture is the largest emitter, producing 36% of total methane emissions, compared to 30% of oil and gas. Agricultural methane production has been increasing steadily for decades, jumping 17% between 1990 and 2019, reports the EPA. While enteric fermentation (cow burping) accounts for about 70 percent of total emissions from agriculture, most to augment since 1990 can be explained by the way farms treat manure.

When applied to cropland at reasonable rates, manure makes the soil more fertile without releasing much methane. But when cattle are herded by the thousands, as is the case in the dominant form of meat production in the United States, it generates so much manure that it has to be collected in vast “lagoons”. Farmers then liquefy it and sprinkle it on fields at high rates – and their operations release methane in the process, according to the EPA. As a result, methane emissions from manure jumped 68% between 1990 and 2019, according to the findings, citing the shift to increasingly large dairy and hog farms as the main driver.

Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, said Mother Jones that the IPCC’s discovery of already uncontrollable climate change underscores the need to rapidly reduce methane emissions. “Since methane is such a powerful short-term warming driver, drastically cutting emissions now could save us time moving away from burning fossil fuels,” he said.

In short, carbon dioxide from fuel combustion is a slow and stable climatic factor and must be reduced, requiring economy-wide change. Reducing methane would relieve some short-term warming pressure while we’re doing it. A 2021 report from the United Nations Environment Program and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition found that a reduction in global methane emissions by 45% this decade “would prevent nearly 0.3 ° C of global warming d ‘by 2045’, significantly reducing the destruction of climate change over the period by then.

Leaks of methane from fracking sites are getting a lot of attention, and we need much stricter drilling regulations, Lilliston said. “But we should also put more emphasis on factory farming, which is a growing source of emissions.” In other words, with her recent legislative shenanigans, Senator Ernst may have unwittingly stumbled upon big ideas that are not currently on the political agenda: Firms on a large scale.


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