This article is a brief description of carbon offsetting through projects related to reducing methane emissions from cattle and other ruminants in agriculture. It is for someone intending to offset their carbon footprint, providing the basics for how these projects achieve carbon offsetting, what carbon accreditation auditors look at when evaluating them, and issues commonly associated with them.
For preparatory reading, and links to other articles in this Carbon Offsetting series:
Carbon Offsetting & Net Zero Emissions
Since the global warming phenomenon was first confirmed in the 1990s, the need to scale back greenhouse gas emissions has been known.
Greenhouse gases have increased at an unprecedented rate in planetary history, driven by mankind’s burning of fossil fuels within a relatively short period of time. The increased heat trapped by the added greenhouse gases have begun to change the balance of climate systems, some of which lead to the release of even more greenhouse gases (e.g. forest fires, permafrost melts).
In 2015, the Paris Agreement saw the nations of the world agree that global warming needs to be kept below 2 degrees above pre-industrial global temperatures (aiming for no more than 1.5 degrees to avert the worst effects of climate change to vulnerable nations).
Net zero carbon emissions is not about that.
You may notice a growing number of companies pledging to be ‘net zero’ or have ‘net neutral’ carbon emissions. Invariably this will involve changing the way their businesses operate so that they emit less carbon. And, if there are any carbon emissions left over, they have to be offset.
However, without needing to be particularly good in math, you would realise that even if all businesses are net neutral from now on, we would still not be in carbon balance. The greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere now will continue to heat the earth, and climate change that is already underway will release other greenhouse gases from natural reserves.
So this is why I say upfront that going net zero is not about solving climate change. Additional things have to be done over and above that. Going net zero is about not making the problem worse, so that it isn’t harder and harder to solve.
Carbon offsetting verification standards
Carbon projects rely on carbon accounting to qualify as carbon offsetting. (Jargon cheat sheet article link is at the top). Like financial accounting, you need audits to make sure the carbon accounting is honest. Unlike financial accounting, which has been around for longer, carbon accounting is still being tweaked, since is it still a relatively new discipline. That this is still going on, does not mean that carbon accounting isn’t trustworthy, or that it isn’t essential.
Carbon projects may be fully dedicated to a company intending to meet net neutral targets (e.g. Qantas’ reforestation project), or generate credits which can be bought by individuals, like you and I. The latter are usually managed by carbon offsetting service providers, such as Terrapass.
We can rely on audits carried out by the service providers to be assured that projects are managed to standards submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Examples include the Gold Standard, and the Verified Carbon Standard.
Cattle Methane Carbon Offsetting Projects
OK, now on to the project type. This article will cover cattle farming projects which are qualified to claim carbon credit funding.
Why is cattle farming related to climate change?
If you consider the cultures that herd cattle traditionally, you would see that they are generally located in resource-poor grasslands. The reason for this is that cattle can digest the most plentiful thing in savanna – grass – and humans can’t. So we domesticated them. They eat the grass, and we eat them.
This is important, because that’s why cattle farming is relevant to climate change. Cattle digest grass in their ruminant stomach. Microbes in the ruminant stomach ferment the plant material, which is otherwise difficult to break down. A by-product of this process is methane. The methane is burped or farted out, and it enters the atmosphere. Unfortunately, methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
There are actually two reasons why cattle farming is related to climate change. The first is the sheer number of cattle in the meat and dairy industry. Cattle herding in Eurasia brought it into European culture, and it became cattle farming as people settled down in villages. During the colonisation era, Europeans brought the cattle farming culture to the Americas and Oceania. Today, cattle supply half of all livestock protein in the world. Consequently, about a quarter of all methane emissions from livestock is from cattle.
Second, cattle farming that involves feedlots either partially or completely, breaks the original grassland balance. In the original ecosystem, cattle manure fertilises the grassland. This makes more grass, which absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Feedlot farming on the other hand, produces manure that has to be managed in a way that often produces even more methane.
Why do you need to have cattle methane projects to combat climate change?
Methane is about 85 times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Then it degrades in the atmosphere, and becomes carbon dioxide, joining all the other carbon dioxide molecules for 1000 years. Hence, if you can avoid methane emissions, it makes a big difference.
Agricultural sources of methane account for almost a quarter of all methane emissions. Most of it comes from cattle farming. This is why emissions reductions matter, irrespective of whether demand grows or drops. Either way, its methane emissions will stay significant for some time.
Meanwhile, methane reduction projects can generally be implemented immediately. This means the methane emissions reduction happens immediately as well. And, similar to why landfill methane is an early climate action focus, whatever carbon emissions reduction that can happen earlier, makes a bigger difference.
Isn’t it better to stop cattle farming altogether?
This is a difficult question to answer, because cattle farming occurs in many forms. In addition, the climate impact of cattle farming is not just from agriculture. Converting rainforest into grassland to raise beef, like what happened in the Amazon in recent years, removes a major carbon sink to emit more methane. That’s like quitting your job in order to spend more money. On the other hand, the original cattle farming is perfectly sustainable.
Would it help if we ate less beef, so that there are fewer cattle in our food supply? Absolutely. Could we feed ourselves without eating beef at all? Aside from people still living in the original savanna context, probably yes. What if we farmed cattle only on grassland (and not converted grassland)? Yes, this would help reduce agricultural emissions. But demand needs to drop because you need more space, yet can’t clear land for grazing pasture.
Most importantly, however, to do any of this requires something that takes a long time. It requires culture to change. Best case scenario, it happens in a single generation. More usually, culture change is a multi-generational process.
The truth of why beef demand will persist for a little while longer
I think it would be the latter rather than the former, in spite of the vegan movement. The reason is that food is a visceral part of culture. What would European identity look like, without beef? I’m not European; it’s not for me to say how fast the culture should change. But I know that question needs to be answered, before it truly can.
Nevertheless, it’s important, because European culture is an aspired indulgence for post-colonial countries.
In my own country, increasing prosperity led people to eat way more meat in a couple of generations. My culture did have beef for special occasions, but it was never really a cattle culture. And yet today, we demand a lot of meat. The demand boils down to meat being something desired, but was not previously affordable. The truth of the matter is, it would take a generation that got bored with a coveted food, to change the culture.
Meanwhile, it will still take time to phase down cattle farming. We need the cattle methane projects while that’s going on.
Societal conversations rightly should consider long term questions, such as how much animal protein we consume. This is because societal change takes decades. However, engineers and other practical frontliners also consider short term mitigation, because these happen within years. The two must happen concurrently.
It’s like arriving at the hospital with a gunshot wound. Yes, your doctor can and should talk about your lifestyle, but the emergency room one is going to focus on preventing you from bleeding out.
Which cattle methane projects are also carbon offsetting projects?
Cattle produce methane from their digestion (‘enteric methane’ is the phrase you search for if you want to learn more), and most modern cattle farming produce methane from manure handling. The latter can be mitigated by improving farming practices. For example, a biogas project collects methane from manure decomposition and may burn it for energy. As for the former, projects include feed supplements that inhibit methane production in digestion, as well as better feed, which is more easily digested.
However, even if a cattle methane project reduces emissions at the farm, it doesn’t mean that it would qualify as carbon offsetting. A carbon offsetting project gets to earn carbon credits. It can then sell the carbon credits to people who wish to offset their own carbon emissions, so the project has to prove it has excess emissions reductions to sell.
Enteric methane vs other cattle methane projects
Enteric methane projects theoretically would generally qualify for carbon offsetting funding. You can’t recover methane from animals as a commodity, and reducing enteric methane doesn’t increase yield. So a project basically only needs to show that any feed supplements doesn’t come with additional carbon emissions that cancel out the benefit.
Some manure handling projects might qualify, if they can prove it wouldn’t be economical without the funding. Biogas projects, for example, recover methane that could be sold or used at the farm to offset energy costs.
Additionally, certain voluntary certification bodies may require more stringent interpretation on the above. For example, Gold Standard only considers manure handling emissions reduction if it is part of an enteric methane project. Climate Action Reserve issues carbon credits for biogas projects, but only for eliminating methane emissions. If the farm burns the methane for electricity instead of connecting to a fossil fuel grid, they do not issue additional credits for that since it already makes sense for the farm to do this.
Does farming other animals produce methane?
All ruminants produce enteric methane. Aside from cattle, this includes goats, sheep, deer, camels – basically all the animals that eat stuff we can’t digest. It’s just that we don’t farm them nearly as much, so they only account for 23% of enteric methane emissions (cattle accounts for the rest).
Additionally, all intensive animal farming produces methane from manure management. This applies not just to ruminants but to the farming of non-ruminant animals too, such as chickens.
How much methane comes from manure management varies a lot depending on region. For example, dairy manure management in the USA produces much more methane than elsewhere (70 times more than African cattle farming). This reflects agriculture intensity. Beef farming worldwide, and dairy farming in most regions, are mostly grown in pasture. Methane emissions from manure are consequently more or less similar worldwide. Dairy farming in the USA, on the other hand, is heavily industrialised.
That said, manure handling only contributes to a total of 8% of all agricultural methane. Enteric methane contributes 70%.
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Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) methodologies for ruminant methane
Manure handling projects such as biogas digesters are fairly straightforward. Methodologies are broadly analogous to a landfill methane project. Both involve a contained source of methane, and aim to extract it for a useful purpose. The carbon offsetting benefit is the difference between the manure methane and any carbon dioxide produced from its destruction. And it doesn’t qualify if regulations already require it.
Enteric methane projects, however, are less straightforward. This does not mean that the methane reduction isn’t happening. The complication is in measuring how much happened.
Credible carbon offsetting certifiers generally refer to methodologies submitted to the UNFCCC. Methods rely on equations to estimate the effect of feed modifications. There are also rules embedded in the method to make sure major sources of leakage wouldn’t happen. For example, a dairy farm must maintain milk yield throughout the assessment period, aside from limited exceptions. This is because if yield drops, the farm would need to increase the number of cattle, and this cancels out the benefit.
So yes, there is more uncertainty with this type of carbon offsetting project. But the methods are also more conservative to hedge for that.
- Agricultural methane projects around the world; UNFCCC.
An important part of the Paris Agreement is recognition that countries must have the freedom to choose the combination of methods for how they meet their climate ambitions, because each nation has vastly differing circumstances. A solution that doesn’t make sense to one country – however large and influential – may be perfect for another. Is it realistic for your country to eliminate cattle farming, or more realistic to reduce the cattle methane emissions?
I would like to acknowledge Gold Standard and Verra for providing information and resources that facilitated the writing of portions of this article.