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Fighting Climate Change in Agriculture


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Agriculture is a significant driver of climate change, both through the use of fossil fuels and the production of methane from cattle, yet it receives very little public attention when we think about fighting it. So I’m glad to see California start taking the lead on this issue, channeling money to new ways to limit climate change-creating emissions on the state’s farms:

In fact, said Jeanne Merrill, Policy Director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN), protecting the nation’s food supply might be the central reason for the dramatic increase. “I think the governor is concerned with food security,” she told Civil Eats. The more farmers can combine their efforts to mitigate the current problems by reducing the worst greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on the farm, she added, “the better we are at maintaining a secure food system.”

The suite of proposed agricultural programs include existing strategies such as methane digesters on dairy farms, and new ones, like the Healthy Soils Initiative, which aims to increase soil organic matter and carbon sequestration. They would all receive an unprecedented allotment of funds from the state’s cap and trade program, which allows large GHG-emitting businesses in California to buy and sell allowances beyond the state-wide cap. According to CalCAN, there is currently $1.7 billion in cap-and-trade funds that have yet to be allocated.

So why the remarkable increase? Merrill points to a landmark 2012 study from the University of California at Davis that made a compelling argument for the value of climate-smart farming practices, and showed—among other things—that more GHG emissions were released from urban land than irrigated farmland. She adds that the state’s land trust and conservation communities have also rallied behind sustainable agriculture and helped inform decision makers about the undeniable connections between farming and climate change.

But most supporters of the proposed budget aren’t too concerned about why the change is happening—they’re just glad to see that it is.

Of course there are lots of questions about effectiveness, implementation, whether cap and trade systems can work at all to fight climate change, etc. But this is where the political energy and ability is to try anything at all and experimentation is a very good thing at this stage. Hopefully this will lead more states to try it. Although Oklahoma and Texas will probably see this and up their methane emissions out of spite.

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  • Rob in CT

    This definitely needs to be tackled. I totally get going after power generation first – it’s the easiest target in a lot of ways. But that’s only 1/3 of emissions (roughly).

    This is the sort of thing that will probably be much more complicated. Despite it being easy to *say* “we just need a carbon tax and it’ll all sort itself out!” that doesn’t mean designing and enforcing said carbon tax would be simple (let alone passing it). Same for a cap & trade system. Either way, you have to measure and/or estimate emissions and then put a value them. All that will be subject to wrangling.

  • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

    It is usually only mentioned mockingly by deniers noting that cow flatulence in a large source of greenhouse gases.

    • CrunchyFrog

      Anyone know to what degree Bovine farts contribute to global warming? I know that there has been a dramatic world-wide increase in cattle farming in recent decades, including massive farms for US fast food chains that are operated on former Amazon rain forests. I also know that methane has a greater impact in the short run in terms of greenhouse effects than carbon, but doesn’t stay as long in the atmosphere. But beyond that I haven’t read anything quantified as to the total effect.

      Another reason we converted to vegetarianism, btw.

      • delazeur

        I don’t remember off the top of my head what the bovine fart contribution is, but it is significant. (There’s been some noise recently claiming that it’s the largest contributor and that there is a conspiracy to keep attention away from it, see e.g. the documentary Cowspiracy; personally, I think it smells like a wing nut view.)

        Mostly, I’m commenting to clarify that when the global warming potential of methane is quantified, residence time in the atmosphere is taken into account. Any numbers expressed as ‘CO2e’ don’t require any further context to make a comparison.

        • Brett

          I’m sure ProgressiveLiberal will tell us soon enough, when he shows up to chide us for not abandoning meat if we’re so committed to climate change reduction.

        • MaxUtility

          Another issue with meat production is that it uses large quantities of fossil fuels and water once you account for the inputs for animal feed, transport, processing, etc. So it’s not just the farts.

          I saw the stat somewhere that a lb. of beef works out to about the same GHG impact as a gallon of gas.

      • skate

        EPA says that for US emissions, “enteric fermentation” accounts for 26%. Second only to natural gas and petroleum production. Numbers change, though, as I’ve seen one graph demonstrating how much landfills have changed as a source.

  • apogean

    This deserves particular focus because methane is a very powerful ghg but has a short atmospheric half-life. So by achieving a dramatic reduction in the *rate* of methane emissions we could make a moderate impact on warming with little lag time, unlike in the case of CO2.

  • delosgatos

    Is this reversed? It doesn’t’t make sense in context. If more GHG is released from urban areas how does that support the compelling case?

    made a compelling argument for the value of climate-smart farming practices, and showed—among other things—that more GHG emissions were released from urban land than irrigated farmland.

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