CO2 is so last year, COP26 is all about CH4 – you still with me?

did you know the odourless gas methane is 80 times worse than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere? 

but here’s the thing, not only is it more damaging, it breaks down far more quickly than CO2, hence why global leaders have suddenly turned their sights on it as a potential quick win.

so now we have a new target – who is to blame for polluting our dear planet with this evil climate changing gas?

we’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s review some of the ‘facts’…

according to reports today, about 0.5C of the 1.1C rise in the global average temperature since the industrial revolution has been caused by methane emissions.

so it clearly makes sense in a time of climate crisis, and with the clock ticking (it’s one minute to midnight according to our PM. we’re also 5:1 down at half time, which surely means there’s 45 mins to go?!?)… I digress, the clock is ticking so it makes good sense to focus on reducing the emissions of this potent global warmer – hence calls yesterday by world leaders to cut it by 30% by the end of the decade. 

so far Britain, the US, EU, Indonesia, Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria, Iraq, Vietnam and Canada have all signed up. However, China, India and Russia, three of the top five methane emitters, have chosen not to, and neither has Australia. 

still, it’s a decent start, and you’ve got to start somewhere right?

so who is to blame, and what are they going to do about it?

according to a report in The Times this morning, the largest source of man-made methane emissions is farming. the production of oil, gas and coal is also a significant source, with methane leaking from wells, mines and pipelines. landfill also gets a namecheck here and there.

The Times states that “agriculture accounts for 40 per cent of human-caused methane emissions, but fossil fuel extraction and waste make up 35 per cent and 20 per cent.”

ok, let’s blame farmers and meat eaters then.

a little closer inspection shows the source of the report (Climate and Clean Air Coalition) is actually slightly more nuanced than stated. You don’t say? Note how the order is flipped. 

“…most human-caused methane emissions come from three sectors: fossil fuels, waste, and agriculture. In the fossil fuel sector, oil and gas extraction, processing, and distribution account for 23 per cent, and coal mining accounts for 12 per cent of emissions. In the waste sector, landfills and wastewater make up about 20 per cent of emissions. In the agricultural sector, livestock emissions from manure and enteric fermentation represent roughly 32 per cent, and rice cultivation 8 per cent of emissions.”

so in other words more than two thirds of the problem lies elsewhere. Beef farmers will no doubt get more than 1/3 of the spotlight. their burping and farting cows to be precise. 

but to have any real chance of reaching the 30% reduction by 2030, fossil fuel production is where most of the gains can be made, plus sorting out landfill once and for all. 

now we’ve levelled the playing field, what can the agri sector be doing to contribute to solving this pressing problem? 

let’s start by looking at what they are already doing, where innovation and technology is leading the sector, and how simple changes can make major differences. 

research conducted by SEFARI, the Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes, a consortium of six globally renowned research institutes, found that both improvement in feed conversion efficiency and mitigation of methane emissions is achievable through breeding. 

by using information from microbes and their genes present in the rumen (the first of cow’s four ‘stomachs’), researchers were able to analyse the microbial ecosystem. 

it comprises a very dense community of different bacteria, Archaea, Protozoa and Fungi. this ecosystem within the rumen is particularly important in cattle due to its ability to convert indigestible fibrous plant material (e.g. grass) into absorbable nutrients used to produce high quality food, such as meat and milk, for human consumption.

as a by-product of the microbial conversion of feed (in particular fibrous grass), the rumen microbial Archaea population produces methane, which is expelled through mouth and nose into the environment (burps and farts).

they found that the relative abundance of Archaea, which are the main organisms producing methane in the rumen of cattle, are a good predictor of methane emissions. however, the relative abundance of key microbial genes provided an even better predictor for methane emissions. 

the results of this research provides farmers with new breeding strategies to help improve the sustainability of beef production in terms of efficiency and ultimately mitigation of dangerous greenhouse gas emissions.

so, while there’s general consensus that rapidly reducing methane emissions is one of the easier ways to combat climate change, laying most of the blame at the door of farmers is both factually wrong, and risks taking the heat off the other so-called villains. 

according to the UN, 80 million tonnes a year could be cut by controlling leaks in gas plants, using more digestible animal feed, and not sending food waste to landfills. 

a 45 per cent cut would reduce global warming by 0.3C by 2045, and would reportedly save 255,000 premature deaths, 73 billion hours of labour lost to heat, and 26 million tonnes of crop losses globally.

which all begs the question, how are we going to monitor and then prove that emissions are being reduced, that industries and individual companies are playing their part, and that the grandiose pledges and commitments made by our politicians in Glasgow are actually being met?

like carbon dioxide, offsetting, credits, trading and reductions have been fraught with difficulties. Greenwashing bad actors deliberately obfuscate the damage they are causing, even good actors can fall into the trap of investing in trees that are planted to offset their footprint, only to see them go up in flames.

An estimated 153,000 acres of forests that are part of California’s carbon-offset project have burned so far this summer, according to CarbonPlan, a nonprofit climate-research organization. Three projects have been affected. In Oregon, a quarter of the Klamath East project, or close to 100,000 acres, has burned in the Bootleg Fire since early July.

setting a baseline, having robust and consistent measurement, multiple authentication systems in place, all held on a blockchain with immutable blocks that store the data in a tamper proof way, will be needed to ensure it is a meaningful target, not just hot air.