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Decarbonising livestock: the challenges and opportunities of reducing methane emissions
12 December 2022

Decarbonising livestock: the challenges and opportunities of reducing methane emissions

9 minute read
Corporate climate action Project stories
South Pole Editorial Team South Pole

As a significant source of methane emissions, the livestock sector is often scrutinised for its role in exacerbating climate change.

In Australia, however, where the industry represents a significant portion of the domestic economy, livestock producers and industry representatives are recognising the opportunity to be part of the solution.

Carbon dioxide might be the lingua franca of emissions accounting – with all of the 'other' greenhouse gases being converted into 'tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent' (or tCO2e)* – but it's not the only GHG we need to worry about. Methane is 28 times more powerful than CO2 (causing 28 times as much damage to the atmosphere) and is responsible for most of the emissions from the agricultural sector, especially from the livestock industry. In Australia – the world's second largest exporter of beef after Brazil – a whopping 15% of the country's emissions are linked to the agricultural sector. Imagine the methane footprint of more than 24.4 million cattle and around 70 million sheep.

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Cattle and sheep emissions represent over 70% of Australia's agricultural emissions, largely due to the production of methane from their digestive systems.

Against this backdrop, farmers are well advised to get on the front foot and look for ways to reduce emissions. Spurred on by industry association initiatives like the Carbon Neutral 30 (CN30), new government pledges to cut methane emissions across all sectors, and potential upcoming regulation, farmers should seize the opportunities to decarbonise if they want to get ahead of the curve and remain competitive, while also unlocking new value in their farming and livestock operations by increasing productivity and efficiency.

The industry signals are clear

Recent developments in high-profile farming organisations are setting the direction of travel; it's clear other producers will soon follow suit. The Australian government has pledged to reduce methane emissions across all sectors by at least 30% below 2020 levels by 2030. Meanwhile, in anticipation of stronger regulation on greenhouse gas emissions, the industry association Meat & Livestock Australia has set a Carbon Neutral 30 (CN30) climate neutral target for 2030, and the National Farmers Federation has committed to a net zero target for 2050.

The potential impact of regulation on the agricultural sector is also very real: recently, New Zealand proposed a tax on methane emissions for the livestock sector. Many farmers are also under pressure from their customers to reduce on-farm and livestock emissions. Many big retailers and FMCG brands, such as Coles, Woolworths, but also Bega Cheese and Ben & Jerry's, have set net zero policies.

Opportunities for farmers to decarbonise

Farmers looking to make positive changes now are encouraged to ramp up their decarbonisation efforts. Yet they should also be clear about the pros and cons of different decarbonisation approaches. How should the farming community make progress towards the 2030 methane reduction target? What solutions will help farmers achieve the methane reduction goal? Frustration at the lack of clarity was documented at the recent Beef Up Forum in Clermont, where the panel was asked whether it's better to finish livestock early to reduce emissions or improve grazing management systems for grass-finished livestock.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. Yet, avoidance and sequestration approaches – or a combination of the two emissions reduction project types – offer important opportunities for farmers to mitigate their emissions. Carbon methods for avoidance projects involve actions that avoid or reduce greenhouse gas emissions from being released into the atmosphere. Carbon methods for sequestration projects involve activities that permanently remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

We've put together a table to provide a general overview of avoidance and sequestration approaches in the Australian and international context to help you decide which could be relevant to you.

Avoidance methods

Beef cattle herd management (Emissions Reduction Fund – ERF) Managing cattle more efficiently to maximise growth, shorten time to finish and reduce methane emissions.
Feed additives (VERRA – VCS) Additives such as seaweed extract and essential oils are fed to ruminants to reduce their enteric production of methane.
Animal effluent management (international standards) Effluent ponds are covered to trap methane, which is then stored in biodigesters and burnt to turn methane into carbon dioxide and possibly energy.
Savanna fire management (ERF) For the savannas of northern Australia, mosaic pattern cool burns are controlled to create fire breaks in the early dry season and reduce large, late dry-season hot fires

Sequestration methods

Soil carbon (ERF) Improving agricultural practices to increase the organic carbon sequestered in the soil.
Human-induced regeneration (HIR) (ERF) Ceasing activities that suppress vegetation growth, allowing the forest to re-grow.
Environmental planting (ERF) Planting native trees to re-establish forest.

Avoidance and sequestration methods

Integrated Farm management method (IFM) (ERF) Allows the 'stacking' of different types of carbon projects on one farm.

Whether you're a farmer in the feedlot industry or your business is grazing livestock, the tools to address and lower your carbon footprint are at your disposal. By adding feed additives into the diets of livestock and managing animal effluent, lot feeders can see a decrease in emissions while benefiting from a return in credits and associated co-benefits (e.g. productivity gains, energy production, and reduced odour).

To reduce enteric methane emissions, you can also consider the two supplements Agolin, distributed by Feedworks, and the red seaweed Asparagopsis, distributed as SeaFeedTM by Sea Forest, which have shown promising results in reducing methane emissions in ruminants. The water medication technology Direct Injection Technologies (DIT) also works as a facilitator to support the use of VERRA's enteric methane emissions method (VM0041) outside of feedlots. DIT AgTech effectively brings it to extensive grazing, where roughly 80% of Australian cattle are kept. South Pole works with the three organisations to develop projects that reduce methane emissions and generate carbon credits.

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Mark Peart (DIT) showcases water medication technology with South Pole's Dr Tom Schroder

For graziers, the sequestration methods, such as soil carbon, environmental planting and HIR, have enormous potential to help decarbonise the sector while also improving the health of local ecosystems. In early 2023, the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) will be releasing the IFM method, which will encourage farmers to apply multiple methods by reducing project development costs. A perhaps lesser known option for graziers is the Beef Cattle Herd Management (BCHM) method, which also yields Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs) by improving live weight gains through different eligible activities.

Staying ahead of the curve

With the climate changing and new targets being set, the agricultural industry has the chance to make positive changes in business management to adapt to and reach its climate goals. Falling behind the curve puts farmers at risk of not being prepared for imminent regulation, compliance obligations or potential taxes on heavy emitters. Progressive action today opens doors and cements opportunities, helping businesses and farmlands become more resilient now and in the future, as the effects of global warming continue to grow in challenging times.

* Greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) are a multi-headed hydra. Apart from carbon dioxide (CO2), which can be considered as the main offender, there are five other potent GHGs: methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), as well as the so-called F-gases (hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons) and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). Emissions from these five "other" greenhouse gases get converted to "tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e)", effectively making CO2 the reserve currency of global atmospheric pollution.

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