Methane – A black eye for the cattle industry? Or not?
By Ashley Lyon McDonald, NCBA Sr. Director, Sustainability
Methane is often cited for why beef is a major contributor to global warming. However, a new (and more accurate) assessment of the effect of methane shows that when the short atmospheric life of methane is accounted for, the U.S. cattle industry may NOT be contributing much at all to global warming. Why is that important? If you read the anti-beef reports related to climate change, the argument against beef is focused on the high amount of methane produced by cattle through the ruminant digestive process. Methane is viewed as a powerful greenhouse gas that has 25-35 times the warming impact of CO2, but when that impact naturally goes away because methane is broken down in the atmosphere the picture of beef’s impact on global warming is significantly changed. Armed with this new methodology, the U.S. cattle industry may be able to show it makes minimal contributions to global warming, and in the future, may even suggest cattle production is helping to “cool” the effects of other industries, such as transportation and electricity generation.
A recent report written by Dr. Jason Sawyer at King Ranch® Institute for Ranch Management and commissioned by NCBA to apply the new calculation (called Global Warming Potential Star, or GWP*) to the U.S. cattle herd shows promising evidence that our industry’s improvements over the last few decades has us hovering around zero warming equivalents from methane contributions. GWP* accounts for methane’s meager 10-12 year lifespan in the atmosphere, instead of accounting for methane emissions accumulating indefinitely over time. CO2 emitted by burning fossil fuels can take 1,000 years to break down in the atmosphere. This discrepancy is finally being addressed through GWP*. In fact, using the new calculation, U.S. cattle move from contributing 2% of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions to being responsible for only 0.4%.
GWP* was first reported by the Climate Dynamics research team at the University of Oxford in 2018 and has been gaining acceptance in the scientific community as a more accurate accounting for methane’s effects on warming. In its previous reports, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) acknowledged the shortcomings of current methods of reporting methane impacts, and may recommend a change to GWP* in their next report, which sets the standard for global emissions reporting. Many reports have relied on the old calculation, resulting in some organizations publishing articles advocating for plant-based diets. These results may change, however, when GWP* is adopted more broadly. By identifying better science, NCBA is better positioned to push back on organizations who are not accurately portraying the U.S. cattle industry. It also allows us to build the case that the cattle industry may actually be off-setting the warming effect of other industries. With these insights, cattle producers may be able to find ways to lead in reducing the atmospheric burden of CO2, and be a part of the solution by helping reduce the intensity of climate change. Instead of vilifying the industry, those truly interested in comprehensive and sensible approaches to mitigation should become the cattle industry’s strongest supporters.
Is the U.S. cattle industry climate neutral, or even climate positive? When you look at the soil and grasslands maintained by the cattle industry, it is certainly a strong possibility. If the industry continues its tradition of reducing emissions per unit of beef delivered to consumers (through nutrition, technologies, and genetics) while also continuing to be stewards of the land by continuously improving grazing lands to stimulate plant and root growth (pulling down more CO2 from the atmosphere), then climate positive beef is very possible. It’s time the industry stops ducking the issue of greenhouse gas emissions and takes the bull by the horns. If the world wants to address global warming (along with many other related issues like catastrophic wildfires), cattle are not only a part of the equation, but are the best solution.
Brought to you by the Montana Beef Council and their $1 per head checkoff.