Cows and climate craziness

Farmers are using their slow-moving tractors to hinder traffic and draw a crown outside of parliament in their protest against government overreach in the Netherlands. In this case, a climate plan released by the Dutch government to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions was the catalyst for the backlash. However, this latest plan is just one example of many that unfairly target a specific industry’s emissions over others. While reducing carbon emissions is a noble goal, any climate policy should be factually, not rhetorically, driven.

Farmers are protesting a plan requiring them to reduce herd sizes by a third, even though the agriculture sector only accounts for 8 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissionsThis plan is part of the Climate Act,passed in 2019, that “mandates the government to reduce its total GHG emissions by 95%, compared with a 1990 baseline, in the long run.” 

While agriculture, livestock and methane gas emissions are a small portion of global GHG emissions, the Netherlands is not the only country that places disproportionate blame on farming. In the U.S., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gained attention for her Green New Deal and its focus on cow flatulence. Even PBS published an article titled “Cow burps are a major contributor to climate change — can scientists change that?” Not only does this focus make for ridiculous headlines, but, as the Netherlands shows, these headlines validate policy agendas that undermine consumer demands and target negligible offenders.

Consumers are increasingly purchasing and consuming dairy products. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, per capita consumption of all dairy products has increased 11 percent since 2000. The data also shows that dairy product consumption per capita in 2020 was the highest it had ever been since the data set started in 1975. 

Furthermore, U.S. dairy farmers are meeting consumer demand more efficiently. Between 1990 and 2019, the total number of dairy cows in the United States decreased by 6 percent. However, farmers increased production by over 70.7 billion pounds of milk each year. 

Climate narratives about cows and agriculture ignore these increased efficiencies and the dairy industry’s relatively small contribution to GHGs. Agriculture is only a primary contributor to a small portion of emissions; it contributes about 6 percent to the U.S.’s impact on warming through emissions. 

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most commonly discussed GHG because it accounts for 65 percent of global emissions and 79 percent in the U.S. The key drivers of CO2 emissions in the U.S. are transportation and electricity, at 33 and 31 percent, respectively. Agriculture only becomes a significant contributor when considering methane and nitrous oxide—which account for 18 percent of U.S. emissions.

While gases such as CO2 and methane are lumped together as GHGs, they merit different treatment, as they have different characteristics and affect the environment differently. Methane has a short lifecycle of about 12 years due to the process of hydroxyl oxidation, which destroys methane in the atmosphere. This process means that if a herd of cows emits a constant level of methane, it would only contribute to emissions for the first 12 years, and afterward, it would be neutral. Comparatively, CO2 lasts anywhere from 300 to 1,000 years in the atmosphere. 

Emission neutrality isn’t the end point for the cattle industry. According to the paper from researchers at the University of California, Pathway to Climate Neutrality for U.S. Beef and Dairy Cattle Production, cattle operations have the potential to be negative contributors by 2050. This estimate is based on projections and the assumption of adopting new technologies, energy sources and inputs. While the changes and technology adoption needed to achieve net negative emissions are yet to be seen, their potential further illustrates that climate efforts targeting the industry are misplaced.  

The mantra of the past few years is that we must follow the science. Yet, when it comes to cows and climate change, this manta evaporates and an irrational hostility to a scapegoat takes its place. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is an important policy goal, but it can only be achieved by targeting the biggest polluters, not the smallest fish. In shaping its climate agenda, the federal government must ignore the anti-scientific approach of the Dutch and craft its own policy based on empirical evidence and the latest scientific understanding.

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