GHG Guru sees offset potential in reducing livestock emissions

Eric Barker, February 13, 2023

A WELL-KNOWN scientist from the United States says reducing livestock emissions could become a major source of offsets if the industry sets the appropriate targets.

University of California Davis air quality specialist Frank Mitloehner has been travelling Australia for the past two weeks, explaining livestock-related methane emissions to agriculture groups, conferences and universities.

Dr Mitloehner, who also goes by the name GHG Guru (greenhouse gas), is known as one of the leading global voices on methane emissions and has long campaigned against misinformation about the industry’s footprint.

He took some time to chat to Beef Central, where he was asked for his thoughts on the Australian red meat industry’s target to become carbon neutral by 2030.

“If you are going to be carbon neutral in the beef or the dairy industry you would be doing way more than anyone else and I do not think it is a reachable goal,” he said.

“If you say you are going to be carbon neutral, it means you will need to go down to zero with all your greenhouse gases and in my opinion, you will never have animals stop belching and you will never stop manure from producing methane – and you do not have to.

“The global goal is not to cause additional warming and if animal agriculture reduces its emissions, it will stop adding to warming.”

Dr Mitloehner stressed that the industry needed to take global warming seriously and offered some tips to Australian red meat industry – a point that will be explored in another article.

Offsetting potential in livestock emissions

With the setting of goals and targets for the livestock industry, he said it was important to separate the industry’s methane emissions from the CO2 emissions created by the fossil fuel industry.

“Once CO2 is released it stays in the atmosphere for 1000 years, that is why industries like oil and gas have to go to net zero carbon,” he said.

“If you stop burning fossil fuels, you are not reducing global warming – you just stabilise it.

“Methane is a different beast, it is more potent than CO2 and traps more heat, but it is short-lived and gone after about a decade. So, a constant source of methane does not add additional warming to the planet.”

The concept Dr Mitloehner was explaining is known as climate neutral, which indicates that the industry is no longer contributing to warming the planet. He said becoming climate neutral would bring significant benefit.

“By reducing methane by 20 to 30 percent, whether that is through genetics, feed additives or other means, the livestock industry can be climate neutral within the foreseeable future – 10 to 20 years,” he said.

“The industry could offset all the warming contributions of our sector, offset some of the historic contributions and offset some of the CO2 emissions from the fossil fuel industry – which is already happening in parts of the world.”

Australia currently has a carbon crediting methodology for reducing livestock emissions, which has been adopted by some of the country’s largest cattle companies.

Should trees be used to offset?

Planting trees or undertaking activities that encourage forests and woodlands to sequester more carbon is one of the most common ways of offsetting emissions and has been tipped as a major contributor to the red meat industry’s target.

Dr Mitloehner said using trees to offset emissions was risky.

“I know the tree discussion is a big deal in New Zealand and Australia, but trees are a limited means of getting us to where we need to go,” he said.

“Trees will work for the first years of their life when they have their main growth period.”

Dr Mitloehner said with Australia prone to large bushfires, similar to the US, there were issues with the long-term viability of carbon sequestration in trees.

“The question is about what you do with the wood at the end of a tree’s lifespan and whether or not that tree has taken out a lot of carbon,” he said.

“Under California conditions we have found that grasslands can store more carbon than trees, because of the roots these plants have.”

Potential in soil carbon

Plenty of work is happening in Australia to test the ability of soils to store carbon in the long-term, with several soil projects currently hoping to earn carbon credits in the near future.

Dr Mitloehner said there was potential to store carbon in soil, but it was dependent on factors.

“If you have a super fertile soil that already has a lot of organic carbon in it, than the ability of that soil to capture additional carbon is relatively limited,” he said.

“But if you have lower quality soils and you add animal manure and you are increasing microbial activity you will be increasing soil carbon and that will continue for a number of years until plateaus out.”


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