As Canada redoubles its efforts to reduce harmful methane emissions, experts say one of the most tricky obstacles standing in the way is the cow that grunts.
Methane, a clean, odorless gas, accounts for only 13 percent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions, but because it is better than carbon dioxide at catching heat, it is believed to be responsible for at least one-third. of global warming recorded to date.
This makes it a high priority for governments seeking to meet their climate change commitments.
Earlier this month, Canada reaffirmed its support for the Global Methane Oath, which aims to reduce global emissions by 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030.
The initiative, led by the US and Europe, will launch at the UN climate summit in Scotland in November.
No clear solution to the problem
Forty-three percent of Canada’s total methane emissions come from the oil and gas industry, and the federal government has already set regulations to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry by 40 to 45 percent compared to levels 2012 to 2025.
Last week, Canada said its new goal will be to align with the International Energy Agency’s recommendation that methane from the oil and gas industry should be reduced 75 percent from 2012 levels by the end of this decade.
But when it comes to agriculture, there are no regulations, or even federal targets. This despite the fact that industry is responsible for 24 percent of total methane emissions in Canada.
Methane is a natural by-product of livestock digestion, which means that it is emitted into the atmosphere whenever a cow or dairy cow grunts or emits gas.
And unlike oil and gas where existing leak detection and repair technology can go a long way toward reducing methane emissions, there is still no clear solution to the problem.
“I think biology is a little more complicated on the agricultural side than on the oil and gas side,” said Tim McAllister, a research scientist based in Lethbridge, Alta. with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
“Many of the oil and gas issues I think can be addressed with engineering solutions.”
Growing pressure on the sector
This is not to say that scientists are not trying.
Across the globe, research is being done on everything from optimizing livestock diets to adding food additives, everything from nitrates to seaweed, in an effort to reduce methane emissions.
Scientists are also considering the possibility of a vaccine that could target methane-producing microbes in the cow’s gut. Some researchers are even experimenting with placing mask-like accessories over the cow’s mouth to block methane burrows.
Between 1981 and 2011, the beef industry was able to reduce its total greenhouse gas emission intensity by 15 percent, said Brenna Grant, Canfax Research Services manager, research arm of The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association . These improvements were mainly due to improvements in food quality and efficiency.
Grant said last year, the beef industry set its target to reduce the intensity of primary greenhouse gas emissions by 33 percent over the next 10 years, a target it acknowledged is ambitious.
“Let’s say it’s going to be a stretch. And the thing is, we wanted to make it a stretch,” she said. “We wanted it to be something we really had to strive for and work for.”
Experts say that even if a technology makes scientific sense, it should also make economic sense. No farmer will pay for a food additive that reduces methane unless it somehow improves his / her result.
Guillaume Lhermie, director of the Simpson Center for Agricultural Policy and Public Education at the University of Calgary, said so far, farmers have remained relatively unaffected by Canada’s current climate policies.
The use of on-farm fuels, for example, remains exempt from the federal carbon price.
But Lhermie said the beef industry should expect to come under increasing regulatory and government pressure in the coming years. He added that in order to avoid heavy emissions-related legislation and maintain greater freedom in production decisions, the sector needs to address the issue proactively.
“It is almost certain that there will be increasing pressure to reduce emissions from the agricultural sector,” he said. “This could mean massive disruptions to the sector.”
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