The hot air behind the global methane pledge

Cutting methane by 30% by 2030 requires diets for cows and consumers to change and food waste not to be buried in landfill. The target will almost certainly be missed, says David Burrows.

The UK was one of more than 100 countries to sign up to the global methane pledge at COP26 in Glasgow last year, but has made little headway since. Emissions have been reduced by 60% since 1990 but progress has slowed as the necessary policy interventions become harder to implement.

For example, the diets of both cows and humans need to change if methane emissions are to be cut 30% by 2030 (versus 2020 levels) as the pledge requires, according to a new report by Green Alliance. The ‘ban’ on landfilling biodegradable waste must also be brought forward to 2025 from 2028. These are unpalatable propositions for politicians but something has to give.

Changes to animal feed seem the likeliest intervention – but have been a long time coming. In 2011, Defra research showed how to reduce methane from cows by increasing maize silage or adding high-sugar grasses. Now interest has moved on to seaweeds, essential oils and probiotics. The UK government launched a call for evidence on these methane-suppressing feeds in August (which closes next week, November 15th). Some are showing potential but brands (including Burger King) claiming they’ve cracked it have been shot down

Green Alliance points to the potential shown by feed additive Bovaer/3-NOP, citing research indicating that it could cut methane emissions from dairy cows by at least 30%. If its use were not subsidised by government, feeding it across the national dairy herd would add around a quarter of a penny to the cost of a pint of milk, the think tank said. This would cost the average consumer an extra 33p a year and cut agricultural methane emissions by 5%. 

It isn’t clear from the report what’s preventing the government taking action (Green Alliance says most of the changes required will increase the productivity of the food system). Perhaps any – even less than 3p per month – additional cost to food is a no-go during a cost of living crisis being fought by a new prime minister? 

Managing slurry better is another low-cost intervention, and if it’s also captured and converted to biogas by 65% of farmers then it’ll cut agricultural methane emissions by 4%.

Replace processed meat and dairy with plant-based alternatives and there is another 8% reduction up for grabs, and all of sudden we are halfway towards that 30% mark. 

But if ministers are struggling to push through changes to what cows eat then there is no hope for policies relating to what we, consumers, eat. Indeed, most of these changes have already been outlined in the independent 2021 national food strategy, produced for the government by Henry Dimbleby (and largely ignored).

Another message that has come across loud and clear for years from experts, including the Climate Change Committee, is that food waste must be diverted from landfill. Methane emissions from landfill slumped thanks to the landfill tax but 5.4 million tonnes of biodegradable municipal waste (including food waste from home and businesses) were still buried in 2019, generating 19MtCO2e. An early landfill ban and better landfill biogas capture rates would deliver another 19% of methane reductions come 2030, said Green Alliance.

Defra is exploring what it calls “near elimination” of this waste being sent to landfill by 2028 but that’s too late, and there is little evidence that policies will align or even appear to help deliver this (Scotland announced such a ban in 2010 but in 2019 moved the target to 2025 and is still looking underprepared to hit that). 

All of which is a roundabout way of saying there is currently no chance of meeting the methane target that the UK championed at COP26 without a radical policy overhaul (it should be noted that leaky gas pipes also need to be plugged, saving 9% of methane emissions). As I seem to write almost weekly these days, tackling emissions from agriculture and food remains one of the yawning gaps in UK climate policy, and there is little sign the government has any appetite to address it.

And once the COP27 talks are out of the way the pressure on the UK government to fulfil its climate commitments could diminish (it’ll no longer be COP president after all). This could see further policy inertia – a threat which the NGOs fear more than anything. “That’s the biggest issue we’ve got with climate – the speed and scale with which things need to happen,” Doug Parr, chief scientist and policy director at Greenpeace UK, told me recently. On methane, many things need to happen to meet that target in seven years’ time, but at the moment nothing is.

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