A Plan To Curb Climate Change Emissions More People Should Know About
With the release of the The Green New Deal, people have been pouring over the details …and in many cases, lack thereof. But one area gaining notoriety has been around livestock emissions.
Most media outlets are covering it with quippy headlines about cow farts — even though the reality is that it’s actually belching that causes the emissions. But regardless, they’re right that the methane it produces is bad: methane is estimated to be roughly 30x times worse than Carbon Dioxide emissions.
While the Green New Deal doesn’t specify their plan to address this issue, the most elegant solution would be to just drastically cut meat consumption … though I can already see a ‘from my cold dead hands’ (while holding a drumstick) meme from meat eaters flooding social media. Not to mention the call to arms it would create from Big Ag.
But what many scientists and climate fanboys like me already know, and hopefully The GND committee does too, are the growing number of studies being done on incorporating seaweed into an animal’s diet, which results in a drastic reduction in belching.
James Temple at Technology Review has written a great overview on it. After studies first done in Australia and now replicated at other universities including UC Davis, they’ve found that integrating seaweed can reduce methane emissions in cows and other ruminant animals anywhere from 50-80% (depending on seaweed varietal). To put that into perspective, Temple explains:
Each year, livestock production pumps out greenhouse gases with the equivalent warming effect of more than 7 gigatons of carbon dioxide, roughly the same global impact as the transportation industry. Nearly 40% of that is produced during digestion: cattle, goats, and sheep belch and pass methane, a highly potent, albeit relatively short-lived, greenhouse gas. [For anyone wondering what they mean by short lived, methane stays in the atmosphere for ~ 10 years vs Carbon Dioxide, which can remain for 200 years]
If the reductions achieved in the UC Davis study could be applied across the worldwide livestock industry, it would eliminate nearly 2 gigatons of those emissions annually — about a quarter of United States’ total climate pollution each year.
L et’s say that we accept that the science is sound. There are still some big roadblocks, first and foremost being — why would farmers want to pay more money and potentially add more work to their business to incorporate seaweed, when they don’t see anything in return?
But what if farmers could get technical and financial assistance for implementing seaweed programs. And not only that, what if they could actually get paid to do it?
Technical & Financial Assistance For Farmers
I should caveat all this by saying I’m not a climate expert, a policy expert, or a farming expert. Just someone who’s interested in finding solutions around climate change … And possibly someone who spends too much time googling.
And I was surprised to learn that the USDA could be a huge resource to get the project going. There is part of the USDA called the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) which is a group that provides technical and financial assistance to farmers.
These guys even have a hub for Climate Change (which somehow hasn’t yet been removed by this administration) with a wide array of climate change programs specifically aimed at farmers (Carbonscapes & COMET-FARM are two notable ones.) On top of that, they give out annual Conservation Innovation Grants, which are specifically for programs that address greenhouse gas mitigation and carbon capture!
It’s doubtful that the grants would be significant enough to roll this program out on a mass scale, but a pilot project could provide a solid case study for any future appropriations that could be rolled into the GND / updated Farm Bill. And on top of that, could help open the door for something even better for farmers — financial incentives.
Financial Incentives for Farmers Using Seaweed
While environmentally-aware farmers might be somewhat interested if the program was subsidized/free, I’d imagine most farmers are more solely focused (and understandably so) on their business and bottom line. In the industry, profit margins are low,especially for smaller farms, which can be down as far as ~ 10%. So the only way they’d be enticed to get on board is if someone was just handing them money. And while this may never come from government — private industry is another story.
Why? Carbon Credits.
In 2017, Microsoft purchased Carbon Credits from rice farmers, in a first-of-its-kind deal. 4 different farms put into practice a new method called “alternative-wet-drying” (AWD) which alters the soil chemistry and halts the production of methane. The method is estimated to reduce around 60% of methane emissions from rice farming, and has other direct benefits to farmers like reduced water pumping costs and reduced fuel usage.
If a tech company like Microsoft is getting involved in agricultural carbon credits, then why wouldn’t any number of giant companies who are already deeply reliant on farming and agriculture get involved? You know, the kind of companies that rely on beef and dairy to feed upwards of 100 million people a day in the United States alone…
If it wasn’t obvious, I’m talking about Fast Food. They would be the perfect partner to invest in Carbon Credits for seaweed-methane reductions. Though what would be their incentive, aside from some good PR? How about losing billions in investments if they don’t.
Enter FAIRR, A coalition of investors — who collectively control around $6.5 trillion in shares. This past January, they sent letters to major fast food giants like McDonalds, KFC, and Yum Brands (among others) laying out the need to enact much stricter rules on climate and water management. As the director of FAIRR, Maria Lettini, said in an interview,
“Obviously we don’t have a crystal ball, but companies often respond quickly when large shareholders are asking them questions. Private sector and institutional investors are a huge lever of change”
It feels like such a slam dunk as it not only directly hits the targets that FAIRR is asking for, but also helps the farmers that sustain the fast food business. McDonald’s corporate responsibility campaigns are already largely focused around Farmer Livelihoods. In fact, they have a program called the Flagship Farmers Program, which includes 26 farmers who embody standards (set up by the FAI) for ethical, economic, and environmental responsibility. It isn’t inconceivable to imagine they would implement seaweed programs themselves as pilot programs at these farms.
So what do farmers who already know about the program think? Some have voiced concern about additional legislation (notably in California, where methane emissions standards are already being put in place). But it has also been shown that seaweed supplements can actually promote milk production in cows. And on top of that, as farmer Jonathan Reinbold, a sustainability manager for Organic Valley explains in a Yale E360 article,
“Methane is an indication of an inefficiency in the animal’s digestion …If you can increase the digestion efficiency of a cow by 5 percent you could remove 5 percent of the land you use for production for cows. It can go back to fallow or be used to grow other kinds of food.” [Yale E360|
Ok, time for seaweed …Wait, what? There isn’t enough?
I’ll admit, I have a naive optimism when it comes to prospective solutions around climate change. You read about something and get all excited, only to realize that the systems are much more complicated. And one of the hurdles in this specific instance is that while a certain red seaweed varietal that’s been found to be most effective at methane reduction (Asparagopsis taxiformis) does grow in the wild, it isn’t naturally abundant enough to implement into feedstock on a national or global scale.
The world is home to an estimated 1.5 billion cattle and 1.2 billion sheep, suggesting that at least 200 million tons of Asparagopsis taxiformis will be needed to have a global impact. In 2015, only 30 million tonnes of seaweed were farmed globally. [GG]
Now you don’t need to fully replace the current feedstock with seaweed, and in fact the studies have shown that merely adding 1–2% into their diet see the benefits of the methane reductions. But in order to make this happen, we need to build up a much more robust infrastructure for growing red seaweed.
Seaweed farming does exist, mainly open water programs in Asia and Scandinavia where they grow varieties like Nori and Kelp. But there are also companies working specifically around red seaweed for this very purpose — like Greener Grazing. Greener Grazing is a startup offshoot within the company Australis Aquaculture (known for growing and selling sustainably raised barramundi.)
These guys are experts in the field, led by their founder Josh Goldman (one of the pioneers of recirculating aquaculture systems). They are currently in the research phase, analyzing the chemical and biological attributes of this seaweed and beginning the process of building a robust seed bank (so it’s easy to then disseminate). And they’ll be starting a farm trial this Spring (2019) using a submerged tube-net system.
The pioneers of the first study at CSIRO (Australia’s national science research agency) have now identified a second seaweed strain that’s nearly as efficient as Asparagopsis taxiformis, but grows in more temperate waters (as opposed to Asparagopsis, which thrives in tropical waters), and that opens up possibilities to grow it in even more areas.
But when we pull back wider – it’s a great idea to build more infrastructure around seaweed farms, as there are a host of other benefits it could provide as well. Just like plants on land, it can absorb carbon dioxide, and it’s also capable of sequestering nitrogen and phosphorus that have made their way into the ocean from farms, factories and wastewater treatment plants. It’s a surprisingly good natural fertilizer. And it’s also being tested for use in bioplastics, adhesives, textiles, and notably as a new biofuel — A study out of USC has shown great promise on this front.
There are even startups like GreenWave, who are on a mission to help build up the “blue-green economy” by adding jobs and spreading their innovative water-based vertical farming system (or 3D ocean farming as they call it), which can efficiently grow things like scallops, mussels, oysters, and of course seaweed. Here’s what they envision these farms providing:
Why Should This be Prioritized As A Climate Change Project?
We know that Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere can stay around for up to 200 years. That means that even if we drastically curb our C02 emissions tomorrow — we’ll still be paying the price for years and years to come.
But methane on the other hand, decomposes (and becomes far less potent) fairly quickly, after only 10 years or so. According to a report on methane from the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute,
… policies targeting short-lived gases, such as methane, will rapidly lead to tangible atmospheric concentration reductions. Gases with a longer lifetime reach higher atmospheric concentrations and experience a longer lag between emissions reduction and atmospheric concentration reductions. Reducing emissions of short-lifetime potent gases such as methane is therefore a valuable means of rapidly slowing global temperature rise.
10 years is not a long time. Now this may not be true for the die hard climate change advocates — but for the growing body of people that are becoming aware of climate change, but at the same time don’t feel fully invested in it – in order to stay engaged, they’ll want to see that we’re finding solutions that have near-term results. And this is especially true if voters agree to appropriate money towards its efforts.
One of the hardest things about Climate Change efforts is that unlike other problems we humans attempt to solve, its solution doesn’t result in noticeable improvements; a victory means that things just stay the same. And so it’s harder to prove to people that solutions are working.
But the facts seem to be that drastically cutting methane emissions (with this specific project and others targeting methane) will be able to create quantifiable data in a relatively short period of time to prove we’re making a dent with our climate change efforts.
We’re in a sort of waiting room for climate change at the moment. In this room it’s not yet so bad. At least in the Western World, we haven’t yet seen the devastating impacts. But we know what’s on the other side of the door, and it’s not good. If cutting methane emissions can result in a higher likelihood of keeping us in this lobby, then we should do everything we can to ensure it.