A new greenhouse target

Dec. 6, 2010
As efforts to cut emissions of carbon dioxide founder, negotiators at the latest round of United Nations climate change talks are looking to other greenhouse gases.

Bob Tippee

As efforts to cut emissions of carbon dioxide founder, negotiators at the latest round of United Nations climate change talks are looking to other greenhouse gases.

According to news reports from meetings in Cancun, Mexico, some policymakers are considering curbs on emissions of, among other non-CO2 gases, methane. But that route will lead to the same dead-end that stymied the push for CO2 reductions.

As proposed sacrifices become clear, people begin demanding convincing answers to an important question: Why?

With CO2, answers have been muddled by scary projections increasingly seen as exaggerated and, in Europe, by an inexplicable push to lead the world into ever-increasing energy costs and manipulations by government. In the US, a proposed cap-and-trade system for lowering CO2 emissions has stalled. Even in Europe, popular support for strong remedies urged by political leaders has faded.

Clear weakening

Weakening of the charge against global warming became clear at last year's UN climate change talks in Copenhagen, which ended in failure to set binding targets for CO2 reductions. Because of the collapse in Copenhagen, Cancun will be ballyhooed as a success if negotiators do no more than agree to meet yet again.

So, having splintered their beaks on CO2, negotiators now peck around for other gases to control.

Methane is a logical target. It's a stronger warming agent than CO2—although not as abundant in the atmosphere nor as long-lasting. And, like CO2, much of an increasing concentration of methane in the atmosphere can be blamed on human activity, including the raising of livestock.

According to a 2006 report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, farm animals generate 18% more greenhouse gas emissions, as measured in CO2-equivalent, than transportation.

And expanding prosperity means more consumption of meat and dairy products. The FAO report said global meat production is expected to more than double in the first half of the 21st century while milk output increases nearly as much.

When emissions from land use and land-use change are considered, the livestock agricultural sector accounts for 9% of the CO2 attributed to human activity. For nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas, the share is 65%. For methane, it's 37%.

The FAO report recommended a number of remedies, including land-use changes, improved efficiency of livestock production and feed-crop agriculture, and irrigation improvements.

Others have taken the recommendations further.

Rajendra Pachauri, chief of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says people should cut their consumption of meat (OGJ, Sept. 22, 2008, p. 80). He's a vegetarian.

Lord Stern of Brentford, author of a 2006 study for the UK government calling for urgent action on global warming, has made similar suggestions.

"Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases," he said in a television interview before the Copenhagen meeting last year (OGJ, Dec. 7, 2009, p. 72).

So if the global warming agenda can't sharply raise the costs of energy, it will instead try to change the eating habits of people who like meat.

The effort is surely futile. When people understand the sacrifice they're asked to make, they'll again ask why and again receive vague and uncertain answers couched in unfounded warnings about doomsday warming of the planet.

At some point, moreover, they'll simply tire of smug politicians telling them how to live. Maybe they've reached that point already.

Livestock growth

The FAO report noted another dimension of the agricultural methane conundrum.

"The global livestock sector is growing faster than any other agricultural subsector," reported a press release about the study. "It provides livelihoods to about 1.3 billion people and contributes about 40% to global agricultural output."

Poor farmers in developing countries, it added, derive more than food from their livestock, including energy for work and fertilizer for crops.

For negotiators in Cancun, methane might seem like a convenient replacement for CO2 as a target for greenhouse-gas cuts. But, because of the changes it would force on people unconvinced of the need, the new target will be no less difficult to achieve.

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