A VetSalus perspective on COP26
As the stressed negotiators and delegates leave Glasgow and the politicians begin to talk up the success of the event, the rest of us might be excused for wondering what has been achieved? A number of voluntary decisions have hit the headlines including resolutions on deforestation, methane reduction and “phasing down” of fossil fuel emissions. But the reality is that these are, in the main, voluntary resolutions and there is little or no way of enforcing them. The prospects of keeping the global warming target at 1.5C are rapidly waning.
It is the resolution on methane that continues to cause us most concern at VetSalus. The governments of over 100 countries pledged to reduce their methane emissions by 30%, by 2030 (compared to 2020 levels.) Predictably, most of the media carried pictures of dairy cows when reporting this. The background to this decision is a paper from the United Nations Environment Program, which identified methane reduction as a route to rapid progress on climate change (1). We have previously written about the flawed measurement of methane, which is admittedly a powerful, but short term greenhouse gas. The insistence on using the GWP100 metric rather than the GWP* has also been previously analysed. Fundamental to the COP discussion is, once again, the failure to distinguish between biogenic methane, which forms an integral part of the age old carbon cycle between plants, animals, and soil and the “new carbon” cycle, based on the burning of fossil fuels.
That ruminants produce methane as a byproduct is undeniable (but significant progress is being made in modifying the amounts of methane produced). In recent years methane levels have steadily risen, while ruminant numbers have been falling. So clearly their contribution, even if biogenic in origin, is not responsible for this rise (2,3). And once again cattle, and other large herbivores, gain little or no credit for their massive contributions to soil health and carbon sequestration. To be fair to the UN Environment Program, in the section entitled “How to do it”, the paper does recognise that the greatest progress on methane reduction can be made by reducing emissions associated with oil, gas and coal and by better management of waste. It further states that one of the most promising routes to progress with agriculture is by improving animal health and husbandry; this is central to the VetSalus Mission and we wholeheartedly endorse and support all efforts to reduce ruminate methane emissions by improved nutrition, management and breeding. And let us ensure we use the best and most relevant new science to do this rather than cherry picking bits of science that suit political messages. Rice paddies, as significant generators of methane, also receive particular attention in the UN report but have attracted very little coverage in the recent media.
VetSalus welcomes any science based initiatives which either increase the profile or contribute to the solution of the climate crisis we are all facing. Over the coming weeks we will produce further in depth articles on the aftermath of COP26, particularly with regard to UK, NZ and European animal health and farming systems. But, as we begin to analyse the detail of what was achieved at COP26, it is difficult not to cynically conclude that the list of achievements will be rather short.
- J.Schwartz, Cows Save the Planet (Chelsea Green publishing, 2013)