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How Livestock Farms can Lead the Fight Against Climate Change

How Livestock Farms can Lead the Fight Against Climate Change

Reducing methane emissions on livestock and dairy farms is an important step to fighting climate change according to a recently published report titled: Methane, Cows, and Climate Change: California Dairy’s Path to Climate Neutrality. Livestock farms, such as dairy operators and other intensive livestock producers, can be at the forefront of combatting climate change. Farmers by nature tend to be acutely aware of the environment. They monitor and care for their farmland as they depend on it for their survival and that of their farming business. It stands to reason that they would take this a step further and take measures to protect the broader environment, including climate, that ultimately influences their operations and either contributes to their success or demise. Climate change is one of the most concerning environmental issues of our time. Increasing atmospheric temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns, such as prolonged drought and/or an increased risk of tropical storms and associated flooding, affects farmers globally and can be devastating to their farming operations. The three key greenhouse gases driving climate change are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Since livestock farms are an important source of methane, they are often the focus of anti-livestock lobby groups and receive much media attention with regard to their greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, while methane is a potent greenhouse gas, its impact on climate change differs from that of carbon dioxide — the primary greenhouse gas emitted when fossil fuels are combusted. According to the report, “methane is a short-lived climate pollutant and exists in our atmosphere for 12 years before it’s broken down. This means, when a constant rate of methane is emitted for more than 12 years, one molecule in effect replaces a previously emitted molecule that has since been removed. In other words, methane isn’t accumulating in the atmosphere,” according to the authors. [caption id="attachment_2310" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Reducing methane emissions will see immediate climate response. Credit: UC Davis Department of Animal Sciences, Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research (Clear Center)[/caption] The primary difference between these two main greenhouse gases is that methane is short-lived, and breaks down in the atmosphere after 12 years, whereas carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for centuries before it breaks down. Since more and more carbon dioxide is being added all the time, carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere and the levels increase over time. As more and more farming operations implement climate-friendly farming practices such as no-till planting, use of cover crops, enhanced genetics, improved efficiencies, converting methane to energy through biodigestion, etc., methane emissions are beginning to stabilize. This results in a ‘negative warming’ effect, meaning the atmosphere is actually becoming cooler rather than warmer due to a reduction in methane emissions. Dairy operations, for example, are starting to use manure from their cows as feedstock in biodigesters, which then produce methane that is converted to energy. This not only reduces the level of methane that would otherwise have been emitted into the atmosphere but also provides a clean source of natural energy to replace dirty fossil fuels responsible for carbon dioxide emissions. Win-win all around. As less methane is being emitted, the net result is that more methane is being broken down in the atmosphere than what is being added. The following infographic explains how carbon dioxide lingers and accumulates in the atmosphere while methane breaks down at a similar rate to which it is emitted. [caption id="attachment_2309" align="aligncenter" width="2048"]Reducing methane emissions on livestock farms key to reducing climate warming. Credit: UC Davis Department of Animal Sciences, Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research (Clear Center)[/caption] The take-home message is that reducing methane emissions even slightly will result in a cooling effect almost immediately. However, because carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for such a long time, reducing carbon dioxide emissions now will only reduce atmospheric warming much later. Meaning our kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids may reap the benefits and thank us for our efforts. Therefore livestock and dairy farms can and are playing a significant role in global efforts to become climate neutral, and ultimately are helping to reduce the impacts of climate change.
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