If we learned anything from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report, it’s that the window of time to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis is rapidly narrowing.
Global warming of 1.5°C, the danger line for our planet, is virtually certain — unless we drastically reduce emissions. We know that this means heatwaves, wildfires, and hurricanes will keep getting more frequent and worse. Many will suffer, and not uniformly: those who are people of color, low-income, and in the Global South will get hit the hardest. Farmers and farmworkers whose livelihoods rely on the land will hurt too.
The United Nations Secretary-General called the IPCC report “a climate code red.” The time to act is now.
Conversations about confronting the climate crisis often focus on carbon dioxide, since it’s the biggest contributor. But there’s another super-pollutant that warrants increased attention: Methane. While methane (CH₄) has a shorter lifespan than carbon dioxide (CO₂), it can trap much more heat in the atmosphere. The IPCC report signals that we must achieve strong, rapid and sustained reductions in methane emissions in order to stabilize our climate in the near term.
While the report is sobering, and the situation is grave, it’s not too late. There are solutions we can enact today to stabilize our climate and save ourselves and future generations from the worst outcomes. One immediate solution is clear: The EPA must limit methane emissions from industrial hog and dairy operations.
When it comes to reducing methane emissions to save our land, air, and water, agriculture is a critical piece of the puzzle. Roughly one third of methane emissions in the United States come from the agriculture industry, which uses its unchecked power to lobby for a free pass to pollute. And a third of agricultural methane emissions come directly from industrial hog and dairy factory farms. These factory farms concentrate too many animals on too small a parcel of land. To manage the massive amounts of waste, the operators choose to liquefy manure and store it in open pools the size of football fields called manure lagoons. These cesspools emit massive amounts of methane, accelerating climate change. And with worsening hurricanes, these lagoons more frequently overflow and poison the Black and brown communities factory farms are usually located in.
Luckily, EPA has the authority to respond to IPCC’s urgent call and limit methane emissions from industrial dairy and hog operations right now — the agency doesn’t have to wait for congressional approval to take steps to secure a more livable future.
We led a coalition of 26 environmental justice, rural community and environmental groups in petitioning the EPA to regulate how much methane industrial dairy and hog operations are allowed to emit under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act. The petition documents the significant impact that industrial hog and dairy operations have on climate change, public health and the environment. If our petition was granted, the corporations responsible for massive methane pollution would have to take action to reduce their emissions. This would limit 13% of total U.S. methane emissions, as part of the urgent action demanded by the IPCC.
Granting our petition would uplift pasture-based farming as a climate solution, which avoids the emissions problems of highly concentrated industrial operations. When manure decomposes on pasture — instead of getting siloed in cesspools — it virtually eliminates methane emissions and builds healthy soil. Healthy, living soil helps farmers withstand climate impacts, as good soil can better hold onto moisture during droughts and stay in place during floods. Pasture-based farms also keep water clean for environmental justice and rural communities by avoiding the excess manure that leaks into waterways from industrial facilities.
Limiting methane emissions empowers pasture-based farmers and allows them to thrive, rather than helping corporate-controlled agriculture to continue to drive small dairy and hog farmers out of business. By transitioning from massive industrial manure & methane generation to pasture-based farming, we can have a stable climate and eat our burgers, too.
At best, the Big Ag lobby will try to laugh our initiative off and drown out discussion of solutions by making jokes. But an existential crisis of critical proportions is no laughing matter.
At worst, the industry will propose schemes that further entrench the existing systems that drive their profits, perpetuate environmental injustice, and fail to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Big Ag is teaming up with Big Oil & Gas to sell the idea of factory farm gas, or so-called ‘biogas’. Factory farm gas would build new facilities to capture methane and sell it to burn off as energy. It may sound green — but it encourages consolidation in the industry, the actual root of the problem.
Factory farm gas is neither an environmental justice nor a climate solution. The scheme would yield corporate profits from dirty infrastructure, enabling the corporate consolidation of power that grants Big Ag license to pollute in the first place. Factory farm gas burdens neighboring rural communities, who are often predominantly Black and brown, with dirty pipelines on top of water and air pollution. These pipelines are just like the ones that carry natural gas and would perpetuate our reliance on fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when transitioning away from it is more important than ever.
In order to avoid the worst effects of climate change, one step that EPA must take is clear: listen to the science, place environmental justice at the center of climate policy, and grant our petition today. Will the agency step up to the task?