Cows Emit Methane. Is There a Way They Could Help Absorb It?

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Black Angus cattle in Victoria, Australia. Image Credit: Signi Livingstone-Peters

Farmers are starting to sell carbon they’ve stored in their soil. What if agriculture, one of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis could be one of the most powerful solutions?

he cows grazing blissfully in the fertile soil of Orbost, Victoria, on Australia’s southeast coast look much like any other. They plod aimlessly around the pastures, their heads bobbing as they tear up mouthfuls of sweet grass, occasionally letting out a drowsy moo. The late afternoon light illuminates their shiny black backs, flooding the swaying gum trees that fringe the paddock in it’s hazy glow.

Harmless as they are, these cows, or rather, the agricultural industry that controls their eating, sleeping, and calving habits are responsible for a whopping 14% of all greenhouse emissions from human activities. Alongside the well known culprit of carbon dioxide, farming generates two other gasses in abundance: nitrous oxide from the additions to fertilizers to soil, and methane. The latter is belched out by the innocuous gentle giants that roam the pastures — accounting for more than a third of total emissions from agriculture. In fact, the average cow produces between 250 to 500 liters of methane a day. On a global scale, livestock take the responsibility of the methane equivalent of 3.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. With our 21st century living habits, it’s more than easy to add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. But removing it? Different story.

Climate scientists estimate that 200 billion tons of carbon dioxide would need to be removed from the atmosphere to halt and begin to reverse the effects of climate change. But, the world’s agricultural soils can meet this challenge if change the way we grow food. Agriculture — both a contributor and a recipient of climate change, is the one sector that has the ability to turn from a net emitter to a net sequester — and have a groundbreaking solution to the climate problem.

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Implementing and regulating carbon neutral practices such as sequestration not only offers farmers an economic incentive to sell their carbon credits to high emitting companies, but offsets their own emissions. Image Credit: Signi Livingstone-Peters

Farms are unique in the sense that they provide opportunities for actually withdrawing carbon from the atmosphere through carbon neutral techniques. Through large emitters, they have the potential to transform from a net emitters of C02 to a net sequesters. If not magic, how does that work?

Enter carbon farming.

It all started in Australia in 2011 — but it was an idea that had been kicking around for years. The Principle’s of Carbon Farmers of Australia had been campaigning since 2005 for farmers rights to sell carbon they grow in soils. Six years later, Australia implemented their first cap-and-trade system. Farmers were offered a carbon incentive — those who sequestered their carbon, could sell carbon credits to high emitting companies in need of carbon offsets.

“Plants and carbon live in constant dialogue.”

Carbon sequestration takes excess carbon from the atmosphere, and puts it back in the ground. This offsets emissions from the necessity of farm machinery to run a large scale farm. Common farming practices, such as driving a tractor, tilling the soil, overgrazing, using fossil fuel based fertilizers, and owning animals that release methane results in significant greenhouse gas release. Implementing and regulating carbon neutral practices such as sequestration not only offers farmers an economic incentive to sell their carbon credits to high emitting companies, but offsets their own emissions by converting atmospheric C02 to high quality, fertile, plant and soil matter.

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BioChar soil, rich in carbon. Image Credit: USDAgov

How does it work?

According to Rodale Institute, an organic agricultural research center, “plants and carbon live in constant dialogue.” During photosynthesis, plants use solar energy to extract carbohydrate molecules or sugar from carbon dioxide. Those carbon based sugars and extracted from the plants root’s — feeding bacteria back into the normal soil. In turn, these microorganisms simultaneously transform soil minerals into nutrients that feed plants. During this exchange, the sugars that are eaten by bacteria in the photosynthesis process are converted into materials that trap carbon in the soil for decades — even centuries. In simpler terms, carbon sequestration extracts carbon from the atmosphere.

Rodale Institute’s study suggests that “If we converted all global croplands and pastures to regenerative organic agriculture, we could sequester more than 100% of current annual C02 emissions.”

In the opposite hemisphere on the other side of the world in Big Timber, Montana, Roger and Betsy Indreland are onto a similar idea.

Ireland is one of the first of many farmers that not only see the appealing aspect of sustainability in a turbulent global climate, but how his ranch can profit economically by working toward carbon neutrality. “If we can preserve these landscapes so that this open space is maintained, that’s kind of the ultimate objective so that we don’t go broke and sell-out and subdivide,” Indreland told Montana Public Radio.

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Montana Cattle. Ranchers receive direct compensation, depending on how much carbon they store in their soil. Image Credit: Roger4336

Climate change is making the business hard for ranchers like the Indrelands, but those down under as well. Continuous rising global temperatures mean droughts — a catastrophe that Australia has been battling with for almost a decade, and that has wiped billions of dollars from agriculture businesses. Droughts mean less water, which in turn means less grass, and ultimately higher costs for the ranchers. A vicious cycle. According to ABC, the value of all that is farmed in Australia has fallen to $58 billion, from $63.8 billion two years ago.

One of the first in their state, the Indrelands were one of the first ranchers to enter a contract with a carbon offset provider — they exchange the stored carbon in their soil, for compensation from NativeEnergy in the form of new farm infrastructure such as equipment and machinery. The carbon that the Ireland’s sequester under the hooves of their cattle can be used to offset high emitting, global companies. Providers like Native Energy are a double edged sword, in the most positive sense of the word — creating a more sustainable planet, while helping the farmers that feed it’s growing population.

We can see tangible progress being made in keeping carbon on the ground.

According to WSE, their mission is to have around 200,000 acres under contract by 2020. Similar to the cap-and-trade system that’s grown in Australia for eight years, they’ll be able to, through soil analysis, predict the amount of economic incentive for other farmers interested in joining the initiative in future years, making further progress toward carbon neutrality.

Justin Gay is a Ph.D Student & Graduate Research Assistant at Montana State University. He is a member of the Ecosystem Ecology and Biogeochemistry Lab. “It is important to contextualize that for regional to global initiatives of carbon sequestration projects to work there needs to be a sustainable carbon market that has the institutional infrastructure, this increases investor confidence and can reduce transaction costs, “Gay says. “We are getting closer — when regional investors and economists partner with boots on the ground grassroots organizations, we can see tangible progress being made in keeping carbon on the ground.”

For past two decades, international negotiations led by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have been guided by a 2°C target, assumed to be a ‘safe’ threshold for global climate change, specifically temperature increase.

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Cattle graze in Orbost, Victoria, on Australia’s southeast coast. Image Credit: Signi Livingstone-Peters

“ Carbon sequestration will change the trajectory of global temperature change projections. And to be even more bold, they are absolutely required in order to stabilize our temperature trajectory,” Gay says.

As the cows continue to peacefully graze, the soil underneath their hooves is undergoing what could be one of the most revolutionary processes in both science and climate change history.

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