Agricultural implications of the COP26 methane pledge

The new Global Methane Pledge could signal the winds of change for Europe's agriculture sector. Photo: Rob Kemp/ Shutterstock.

The agriculture sector, one of the world’s most significant contributors of methane, will be directly impacted by the first global commitment to cut methane emissions by at least 30% below 2020 levels by 2030.

The new Global Methane Pledge was announced during the very first days of the COP26, the crucial UN climate conference still ongoing in Glasgow.

According to European Commission estimates, the pledged 30% could reduce projected warming by at least 0.2 degrees Celsius by 2050.

Methane is a greenhouse gas (GHG) that, despite being short-lived, has more heat-trapping power than carbon dioxide, trapping 84 times more heat over 20 years.

Enteric fermentation – gassy emissions from ruminant animals such as dairy and beef cattle – is considered the biggest source of methane in terms of human-related activities. This is followed by the rice sector, where microbes underwater in paddy fields emit the gas, accounting for 20% of human-related methane emissions.

According to Agnes Kalibata, special envoy at the latest UN Food Systems Summit, the pledge creates the opportunity for food systems to be a climate solution by reducing emissions associated with agriculture.

The initiative was led by the US and the EU, who gathered other 103 countries who combined, account for 46% of global methane emissions and represent 70% of the world economy. They included several cattle-rich countries like Brazil, Canada, Argentina, and New Zealand.

However, some countries with high methane emissions opted to remain out from the commitment, including China, India, Australia, and Russia.

Two dozen countries announce commitment to EU-US global methane pledge

As political support grows to place methane emissions reduction at the top of the global agenda, 24 additional countries agreed on Monday (11 October) to sign the EU-US-led Global Methane Pledge ahead of the UN climate summit in Glasgow.

Innovation and behavioural measures

The global pledge focuses on technical measures such as animal feed supplements which, according to the UN, can cut emissions in the sector by 20% a year until 2030.

Science and technology can help deliver the cut by supporting innovative feed ingredients that minimise methane emissions from enteric fermentation.

New methodologies for quantifying or estimating enteric methane emissions from cattle livestock systems have been promoted over the past few years.

A method of generating localised data about methane and nitrous oxide emissions from livestock is already being implemented in Kenya, using this system to report baseline GHG emissions to the UN.

Although welcoming the initiative, environmental campaigners were disappointed by the lack of reference to behavioural measures such as shifting diets or tackling food waste, which can deliver up to 57% cuts over the next few decades, according to several NGOs.

For Harriet Bradley from the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), the pledge includes reductions in agricultural emissions but only on the production and consumption side.

“The focus here is very much on efficiency improvements such as on feed additives to reduce methane,” she told EURACTIV, adding that there is no mention of reducing meat consumption or shifting to more plant-based diets, especially in wealthy countries.

Methane cuts in the EU

The EU has been taking steps to reduce its methane production since 1996, when the Commission planned to cut landfill emissions by almost half.

But at the end of October, the European Parliament called for the first time on the Commission for a legislative proposal to bind methane emissions targets as part of the measures to combat climate change.

Green campaigners welcomed the news, with Humane Society International saying that it showed MEPs resisted “cynical attempts” to weaken language on emissions associated with animal agriculture.

While EU farmers’ association COPA-COGECA said they supported the move in principle, they regretted yet another call for the Commission to set binding measures and reduction targets.

“Given their on-the-ground realities, farmers should be given the discretion to choose which are the best practices and measures to implement,” they said in a note.

Agrifood Brief: A COP out?

“Plant-forward”, seasonal and locally sourced, with a focus on ingredients produced using environmentally friendly practices. That’s what was on the menu for world leaders this week at the COP26, according to a statement from the UK COP26 Presidency.

On the off …

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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