Climate change policy must distinguish (long-lived) carbon dioxide from (short-lived) methane–Oxford study

Left to right: Auto rickshaw by eCSSpert, Untitled (Plate with Knife and Fork) by Klaas Gubbels, 1999, and a sketch of dairying from a set discovered in the National Library of South Africa in 1986. These are among the earliest realistic depictions of the Khoikhoi, the original inhabitants of the Western Cape. The artist most likely was a 17th C Dutchman.

As the media frenzy caused by a ‘planetary health diet’ proposed in a new report from an EAT-Lancet commission this month continues, it is perhaps timely to recall that a group of scientists recently published a paper on the importance of distinguishing—and treating differently—two of the most common greenhouse gases.

Carbon dioxide is a long-lived emission and methane a short-lived one. The paper outlined a better way to think about how much, and how long, carbon dioxide and methane gases contribute to greenhouse gas emissions budgets. ‘This is an important step towards evaluating the warming from methane emissions when developing strategies to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.’

The EAT-Lancet report summarizes scientific evidence for a global food system transition towards healthy diets from sustainable agriculture. The report concludes that a global shift towards a diet made up of high quantities of fruits, vegetables and plant-based protein and low quantities of animal protein could catalyze the achievement of both the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement to combat climate change.

‘“Current climate change policy suggests a ‘one size fits all’ approach to dealing with emissions,” says Professor Dave Frame, head of the Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington. “But there are two distinct types of emissions, and to properly address climate change and create fair and accurate climate change policy we must treat these two groups differently.”

‘The two types of emissions that contribute to climate change can be divided into “long-lived” and “short-lived” pollutants.

‘“Long-lived pollutants, like carbon dioxide, persist in the atmosphere, building up over centuries. The CO2 created by burning coal in the 18th century is still affecting the climate today,” says Dr Michelle Cain from the Oxford Martin Programme on Climate Pollutants. “Short-lived pollutants, like methane, disappear within a few years. Their effect on the climate is important, but very different from that of CO2: yet current policies treat them all as ‘equivalent’’”.

‘The research, which appears in the journal Nature Climate and Atmospheric Science, demonstrates a method of defining equivalence between the different emissions, which takes into account the lifetime effects. This would be particularly relevant to industries like agriculture, which contribute a large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions using traditional methods in some countries, for example New Zealand.

“We don’t actually need to give up eating meat to stabilise global temperatures,” says Professor Myles Allen who led the study (meat production is a major source of methane).

“We just need to stop increasing our collective meat consumption.

But we do need to give up dumping CO2 into the atmosphere.

Every tonne of CO2 emitted is equivalent to a permanent increase in the methane emission rate.

Climate policies could be designed to reflect this.”

‘“Under current policies, industries that produce methane are managed as though that methane has a permanently worsening effect on the climate,” says Professor Frame. “But this is not the case. Implementing a policy that better reflects the actual impact of different pollutants on global temperatures would give agriculture a fair and reasonable way to manage their emissions and reduce their impact on the environment.”. . .’

The paper is freely available at: Allen, M.R., Shine, K.P., Fuglestvedt, J.S., Millar, R.J., Cain, M., Frame, D.J., & Macey, A.H. (2018). A solution to the misrepresentations of CO2-equivalent emissions of short-lived climate pollutants under ambitious mitigation. Npj Climate and Atmospheric Science, 1(1), 16. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41612-018-0026-8

Read the whole news release at the Oxford Martin School News site: New methane emissions metric proposed for climate change policy, 4 Jun 2018.

Related posts on the ILRI blogs

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FAO sets the record straight on flawed livestock emission comparisons–and the livestock livelihoods on the line, 27 Jan 2019.

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With huge variations in meat consumption, we’re ‘all in this existential crisis together’,—Vox, 25 Jan 2019.

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African livestock: A terrible thing to waste,22 Dec 2018.

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Yes, eating meat affects the environment, but cows are not killing the climate, 30 Oct 2018.

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Shirley Tarawali on convergence in consumption of milk, meat, eggs at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, 26 Mar 2018.

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Lora Iannotti on livestock and animal-source foods at Berlin’s Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, 6 Mar 2018.

BMZ’s Stefan Schmitz on sustainable solutions for the livestock sector, 5 Mar 2018

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Towards a sustainable, responsible and efficient livestock sector—Jimmy Smith at the Berlin Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, 22 Feb 2018

​’If you care about agriculture, you care about livestock’—Bill Gates, 30 Jan 2018.

Jimmy Smith speaks in Australia on the pursuit of a ‘low-emissions cow’ and other livestock matters, 3 Jan 2018.

Livestock in developing countries—Misperceptions, facts and consequences, 5 Oct 2017.