The following is a guest post from Didier Toubia, co-founder and CEO of Aleph Farms, and Karen Hooper, policy lead, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) last November called on world changemakers to secure global net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. Within one week of the summit, world leaders were declaring commitments in the billions of dollars to electrify transportation, phase out fossil fuels and incentivize clean energy technologies.
While these goals are important for the long-term reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, there is also a need for more prompt action as we are in the midst of a critical threshold decade considered “a code red for humanity.” Reducing other, more potent greenhouse gases like methane would have a more immediate impact. Even though methane represents a smaller share of total greenhouse gas emissions, over a 20-year period, its potency ratio rises up to 86 times the warming power of carbon dioxide. This means that reducing one base point for methane is equivalent to reducing 86 base points of carbon for the period.
Additionally, while carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, methane breaks down quickly. Thus, reducing emissions now will lead to an overall reduction of the greenhouse gases stockpiled in the atmosphere within our critical 10- to 20-year horizon. Instead of riding more slowly in the wrong direction, quickly reducing methane allows us to change direction.
The Global Methane Pledge signed at COP26 calls on world leaders to commit their countries to voluntarily reduce global methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030, a great step in the right direction. Signatories have stated that in order to achieve these targets, they will focus on reducing fossil fuel leaks and curbing the use of landfills, both well-known culprits of methane emissions generally considered “easy” and cost-effective targets. Yet, according to the International Energy Agency, the largest source of human-led methane emissions is agriculture.
Unfortunately, proposed solutions to the global agricultural system’s impacts on greenhouse gas emissions were left out of the climate negotiations. Meanwhile, the world’s food systems produce over 30% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and 53% of the global methane emissions — and the demand for food is only increasing. Data suggests that even if all fossil fuel emissions were immediately halted, emissions from the global food system alone would still prevent achieving the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degree Celsius target.
Meat’s role in reducing methane emissions
Meat consumption alone is directly and indirectly responsible today for more than 40% of global methane emissions. Meanwhile, demand is predicted to increase over 70% by 2050. To rapidly alter the direction of climate change, we need to innovate the meat sector on two levels: investing in incremental innovation to reduce emissions within conventional animal farming systems, as well as transformational innovation via climate-neutral alternative meat production methods.
An expeditious reduction of methane emissions in the meat sector must focus on two leading sources — enteric fermentation, or burps from cattle — and manure management. The Greener Cattle Initiative (GCI) was announced at the COP26 by the US Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) and the Innovation Center for US Dairy in an effort to reduce methane emissions within existing farming systems. The program provides millions of dollars in funding for research on reduction methodologies, monitoring systems, feed ingredients or state-of-the-art technologies to lower enteric methane emissions in the livestock industry. For example, Australian researchers have found that replacing 3% of a cow’s diet with a specific seaweed resulted in up to an 80% decrease in methane emissions.
Other innovations in livestock breeding and manure management have similarly shown positive results in reducing methane emissions. However, modeling suggests that even widespread adoption of new techniques would still not have enough of an impact to stay on the 1.5 degree pathway. Thus, this approach is an important yet only partial solution.
New production methods
Scientists are now able to grow meat directly from animal cells — the building blocks of conventional meat — without using the whole animal.
Cultivated meat as a supplement to sustainable segments of conventional animal agriculture could be a key solution to achieving the most rapid and impactful climate change goals. When compared to conventional beef production and assuming renewable energy is utilized, cultivated meat is estimated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 92%, land use by 95%, and water use by 78%, according to an independent Life Cycle Analysis which was published last year.
To create the kind of overhaul needed to address methane in the meat sector, we need a series of solutions working together and alongside each other.
Animals have an important role in regenerating our soils and preserving our ecosystems, thus we need carefully managed animal farming. Incorporating cultivated meat into the meat sector could make up for this loss of productivity while staying in balance with natural resources.
Today, 30% to 43% of the global harvest is used for animal feed. Monocultures of soy and maize as feed sources are a leading cause of deforestation, loss of biodiversity and arable land. Cultivated meat requires fewer inputs to make the same amount of meat equivalent, allowing us to revert some of the land used for animal feed to forests and restore biodiversity.
To compensate for the remaining CO2 that will be released to the atmosphere both from sustainable animal agriculture and from cultivated meat production, it is also important to invest in approaches that capture the carbon from the air, which include reforestation, regenerating soil to sequester carbon, and preserving the oceans to create carbon sinks.
Expansion of alternative seafood production methods could reduce greenhouse emissions associated with the world’s fishing and aquaculture industries along with preserving the ocean’s natural capabilities to sequester carbon.
How do we get there?
The public sector and policymakers should take action and work hand-in-hand with both conventional animal agriculture and the cultivated meat industries to build incentive programs, develop regulatory frameworks and invest in public research to promote a just and inclusive transition of the existing agricultural ecosystem.
In these ways, government bodies, nonprofits, global corporations and local communities can come together to address critical COP26 deadlines. As recently announced, COP27 in Sharm El-Sheik will host the world’s first Food Systems Pavilion, putting food in the center of the agenda in climate negotiations. A key area for the pavilion will be solidifying a coherent public-private approach, combined with policymaking and realignment of incentives that can help accelerate the transition towards ecologically sound production systems.
Addressing these issues shouldn’t just be seen as a problem to be solved, but rather an opportunity for countries to embrace, one that could simultaneously meet key objectives in relation to the environment, public health and the economy. This will enable us to counter the age-old adage of “you can’t have your cake and eat it, too” with “you can protect your planet and eat a steak, too.”