Whenever someone from the National Party talk about ag methane emissions they remind us all of this one thing. It’s repeated so often that even Reuters is saying it.
But did you know how those numbers came to look this good? Lets take a look at the paper.
It was created by the government group AgResearch with some funding and promotion in the media by industry group Beef and Lamb NZ. It starts by pointing out how massive on-farm emissions really are. We emit a lot of carbon shipping near a million tonnes of meat to the other side of the world, but Cows has emitted 19 times as much before they leave the farm gate.
And the answer, here in NZ, is trees. We offset the ruminant emissions with trees, and that what reduces the overall by nearly a third.
It kind of makes sense in this case because cows and trees both have a temporary impact on warming. A tree holds it back, while it’s still wood, and a cow pushes it forward, as long as its still eating.
Think of a Carbon budget as a bucket. Burning fossil fuels fills the bucket up and its stays full. But the methane emissions, like the ones from cows, bucket has a slow leak. If you pour into it slowly, it reaches a level. Adding trees is like making that hole a bit bigger - you can release more because more goes away. The paper says we’ve reached a sweet spot of carbon nuetrality, but only with sheep.
Our sheep numbers dropped massively since the 1990s, so that helped to. For sheep. Those sheep farms were replaced with dairy. And dairy is like a fire hose.
Many rural people are very worried about tree planting, because we’re also allowing international spenders to buy carbon credits by planting trees to cover their fossil fuel emissions. It’s rough on small communities where suddenly there’s nothing to do and people start to leave.
And that’s not great. Offsetting oil emissions with trees is a temporary solution to a permanent problem. If we tried to offset our oil emissions with trees we’d soon need more extra planets to plant them all on. And we’d need to add more planets over time. No, that’s not a solution and no one is suggesting that. The climate commission is clear on this in it’s ag report: we can’t plant our way out of this problem.
From teh study. it looks like there’s no agreement yet on how these tree-offsetting-livestock-methane things should go, and maybe its just accounting. But it does show the work farmers have put it to reduce methane so far. And it highlights the pressure some of this planting is putting on them.
That’s too complicated for a sound bite, so the Nats just go to this <<>>. And yeah, there’s a problem with that too.
You get on a bus, looking for a free double seat. But they’ve all been taken. You try to sit next to someone, but they’ve put a bag in the seat next to them, and they don’t want to move it.
Sure, they didn’t pay for that seat, but they tell you they’re not going to help you. And why? Well, they tell you that there are people are gonna get on at the next stop, and those guys are the worst. They get on with two bags, and take up three seats. So, you know, you should really thank them. Because they’re doing the right thing.
Ok, you have to ask, did he pay for two seats. No, of course not, that would be crazy. But still, you need to thank them anyway.
Are you annoyed yet? I would be.
This is the leakage argument. It’s a raionale where, if we didn’t do this, someone else would do it worse, so everything is better this way.
The founders of the Paris Accord, the agreement all nations agreed on to limit warming, was designed to address it. It works much the way the bus does: you get the seat you paid for. That’s it. Someone else does it worse, well we’ll deal with that too. Each nation has counts their seats, and each sticks to their number.
To anyone who’s been in this situation, you’ll know its awkward, and annoying, and difficult. But it is fair, and simple, and sometimes you’re in the aisle seat next to someone you’d really don’t like now.
And every time this phrase comes up ‘what about the x % that will happen elsewhere’, is making the same play. If everyone took that view, we’ll have no agreement on anything, and nothing gets fixed.
But we shouldn’t feel too put out by it. The real losers here are the last ones to get on the bus, nations that recently started industrialising and have to scale back when the rich nations rode for free for hundreds of years. Countries shift their high emitting production to other countries, then beat them up over emissions for the stuff they make for them.
It’s a bad faith argument, and doesn’t leace us in the right, since, per captita, we are amoung the highest emitters in the world. The rest of the world wants our milk, and milk is high-emitting, and we’re stuck with the cost? Puts us in the same boat as nations that make cars to export around the world, leaving them stuck with the cost.
So, don’t accept the argument as it is. It sucks, and things need to change, but pushing the blame is something we talk people out of when they’re still very young.
Whenever life, which is all Carbon based, breaks down anaerobically, that is, away from available oxygen, and usually somewhere wet, some of the carbon will bind with Hydrogen, making CH4, methane, instead of CO2. It happens in rice paddies and landfills, and it’s the reason it’ helps to compost.
It happens in the rumen too, that part of a grass eater’s stomach. And so, most of our grassland goes through this process, and here’s the problem.
The National Party is staking much of our future on a tech solution, called a methane vaccine, to address the problem. This is a big part of the work happening at AgResearch. They’re looking at a vaccine which can put anitgens in the saliva, which will make it to the rumen and inhibit methanogens: enzymes that pick up the free Hydrogen molecules and turn them into CH4.
Now, these ruminants all evolved together, the enzymes work pretty much the same way everywhere, so if they can pull it off, that will be amazing. The scientists love this work because it’s a huge challenge. They’re reverse engineering a cow.
Now here are the caveats:
- they’re looking at a decrease of 30%.
- getting it to work in a reliable and practical way across 10 million cows is an enormous challenge
- this work has been going on for decades, around the world, with no usable results yet
- the world may move on
Because the remaining 70% of emissions is not the whole problem. A cow is a very inefficient factory for turning plants into milk. And if you’re having to work that hard, why not try it the other way - making the factory yourself. Some companies, like Perfect Day, use fermentation techniques with cow enzymes to break plant matter down in vats and turn it into milk. And it works. It doens’t have the huge corporate interest of Big Dairy, but still. They can put a factory near their markets, doing away with the energy required to raise a cow, the extreme land and water use and the methane emissions.
Because is you capture methane in a vat, you can turn it back to Carbon oxides with a match. Emissions done.
Not to mention, the supermarket aisles filling with alternate milks. The fact is, dairy may just prove to be the hardest, and most damaging way to do this. One quarter of all heating comes from livestock, and it’s the only emission that reduces when you stop contributing to it. If the world is too hot, that’s a way to cool it down.
Ad Henry Ford said: if you asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.
When it comes to dairy, this is an outcome people need to think about and plan for. The vaccine may come soon. But its not the whole answer. If the market finds another way, then its’ game over for dairy.
Another term that comes up liberally in talks about climate change is ‘Carbon Capture’. This asks a very reasonable question: ‘can’t we just grab the carbon back and store it somewhere.’
This is not just theoretical, since the IPCC has been counting on it, one way or another, for many years now. But nor is it quite real: as one IPCC senior said ‘it’s a little like planning on the invention of a time machine’.
There’s a fundamental law in physics that says energy never really disappears, it just changes it’s state. A massive amount of energy hits us every day from the sun, and we use it, one way or another, and much of it is dissipated out into space.
Some of the energy gets bound up into molecules, like this benzene ring or this glucose molecule. Putting a carbon atom into a complex structure like this stores energy, like charging a battery. When you take the energy back, by burning the benzene or using the glucose in your body, the carbon goes from a complex structure to a simple one. Normally CO or CO2.
Which is to say, the big problem with taking the carbon back is that you need to apply the energy that was released when it was burned. When we burn oil we’re releasing energy that arrived across the billions or years of the earth’s history.
Looked at this way, we’re not burning the future when using oil, we’re just pawning it. But if you can’t buy it back, that works out much the same.
There is one way though. Instead of making it into a solid, what about bottling all that CO2 gas and pumping it underground, somewhere safe?
This is called Carbon Capture and Underground Storage. It involves finding caverns beneath the ground, airtight ones, and pushing it all down there. Oil companies know about them since mostly they were places where all the oil came from in the first place.
- It’s still an insane amount of energy - we extract and release trillions of tonnes of carbon a year, so who pays for that, and, even if it where does the energy come from?
- It doesn’t work - After decades and billions spent on this, there are no working cases of it performing at scale
- How many truly air-tight underground places exist? We know some of them USED to be, but we sued fracking to break them all up, to release the gas inside them. So by definition, they CAN’T be.
Take a look at this paper by oil industry group energryresources. They represent the industry here: so while the Climate Commission provides an advisory plan to the government, they have now power to enact it. So, it’s that’s an aspirational plan. Without it, the energyresources document IS the plan.
Then do a find on the acronym CCUS. It appears about once per page.
While they love to drag the chain on everything else, it seems like oil companies and their friends get really excited about the new form of energy, Hydrogen. What’s that about?
For a start, it’s actually the oldest atom. The whole universe was in a hot, dense state and then it was out the gate. Not only the most plentiful atom in the universe, it was, for a while, pretty much the only one. (Hey, what about me) Shut up Helium you talk weird.
So you know how when complex hydrocarbons meet oxygen and a spark the make energy? Well, Hydrogen, all by itself, does the same thing. Cram it into a bottle and you can make electricity or go boom, and you end up with nothing but water.
It’s a fire that makes water. Weird. Well, a bit like methane actually, but still. Cool.
Even better, kilo for kilo, it carries much more energy than a battery. It night be used one day in shipping and even airtravel.
But that’s not what they’re excited about. They’d like everyone to use it. Lots.
Do you ever stop to think, when sitting at the wheel of some big vehicle, hitting the gas and flying up the road, how extraodinary amounts of energy just feel, well, kind of endless? It’s amazing! It feels amazing. It’s no wonder we love it!
There’s a reason it feels this way. You can think of the earth as a huge solar powered battery, taking the some of sun’s energy and putting it underground, every day since carbon based life first appeared. One thousand billion sunny days.
We used little bits and pieces over time, burning a big of peat here and there, but we’ve only been using it for about two hundred. If you stretched that into a timeline that went around the planet, the age of fossil fuels is two metres long.
So yeah, that energy has felt kind of infinite because it kind of is. As it became harder to find we came up with energy intensive ways to get it out, and
You know that saying, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail? That’s kind the problem we have when trying to talk about transport here. Apart from a few places, notably parts of Wellington and Auckland, there are no other ways to get around. Even if you live in these well-supported little enclaves, you’re still going to need a car to get anywhere else.
The media we consume is based in another country that is a weird little outlier when it comes to mass transit - the U.S. To watch that is to believe that only large countries have transport choices, and generally, they are kind of rough.