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28 November 2023

Unearthing impact: Methane emission challenges in Japan's agricultural landscape

5 minute read
Net zero Climate risks & opportunities Corporate climate action
Anvita Srivastava Managing Consultant, Climate Strategies
Yuma Nagata Consultant, Agricultural Value Chains

As countries race to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, most of the attention has been focused on carbon dioxide across various industries.

However, it is equally critical to cut methane emissions. Methane has a more powerful near-term warming effect when compared with CO2. Cutting methane emissions would have a more immediate impact on the climate.

In this blog, we will explore how agriculture companies in Japan can understand sources of methane emissions and contribute to reducing them - particularly in the rice and livestock sectors. Not only will this ensure companies are supporting government targets and critical global climate action, but also prepare them to be more resilient for climate-related risks and opportunities in the future.

Japan's commitment to methane reduction

Alongside more than 100 other countries, Japan signed the Global Methane Pledge to reduce global methane emissions by 30% by 2030 from the 2020 baseline at COP 26 in Glasgow. About 80% of Japan's national methane emissions are from the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors. Rice paddies and enteric fermentation (fermentation in the intestine) account for over 45% of total methane emissions.

To tackle the challenge of reducing methane emissions and a multitude of other issues in the agriculture sector, Japan's Ministry of Forestry, Agriculture, and Fisheries introduced the MIDORI strategy in 2021.

Rice farming and methane

Rice grows mostly in flooded fields called rice paddies. The water blocks oxygen from penetrating the soil, creating ideal conditions for bacteria that emit methane when they break down organic material like rice straw and fertilisers. The longer the flooding lasts, the more those bacteria build-up with greater emissions.

Studies have shown that by prolonging the mid-season drainage periods (“Nakaboshi") during wet-land rice cultivation by seven days and intermittent flooding, methane emissions from the paddies can be reduced by as much as 30%.

Methane emissions also depend on the type of organic materials applied. Precision agriculture technologies, such as automated rice planters and yield monitoring harvesters, and using composted manure reduce the need for chemical pesticide or fertiliser. Adopting these technologies and practices increases the production and quality of rice, reduces methane and sequesters or locks in carbon.

Livestock farming and methane

A quarter of Japan's methane emissions are from enteric fermentation and about 8.4% from manure management. Nitrous oxide emissions – another potent greenhouse gas – from Japanese animal agriculture account for 0.59% of the total global emissions of nitrous oxide. 11.8% of these emissions come from manure management.

Methane is produced as a by-product of the digestive process of ruminants (cows, sheep or goats) and during the anaerobic fermentation of animal manure by Archaea bacteria. The amount of methane emitted depends on several factors, including the quality of feed, animal management and health, and the environment.

Farmers and other livestock stakeholders can explore several interventions and best practice recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as part of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition funded project, Reducing Enteric Methane for Food Security and Livelihoods. These strategies focus on production activities and are related to farm management practices such as feed and nutrition, animal health and husbandry, renewable energy capture (biomethane), animal genetics and breeding. Other measures can be demand-side such as dietary shift.

Collaborative efforts are essential among governments, the private sector, and all stakeholders in the livestock sector to implement these intervention strategies and effectively reduce enteric methane emissions. Moreover, there's a need to develop incentive schemes that encourage the adoption of these best practices. Engaging with farmers and producers' groups to increase awareness regarding the relationship between livestock and climate change is also crucial in this endeavour.

Future outlook: mitigate but also adapt

As an island nation, Japan is highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change, facing multiple threats such as droughts, fires, heatwaves, typhoons and flooding. Japan's variable climate also poses challenges for the agriculture sector, with extreme and unpredictable weather affecting crop yields and livestock health. While the agriculture sector needs to reduce its emissions, improving resilience to the inevitable impacts of climate change is critical.

Underpinned by significant experience working with agriculture companies across the world, we recommend the following steps to address methane emissions:

The first step for companies is to understand the current source of their emissions , farm practices and agriculture systems. Supply-side companies, such as producers, should collect primary on-ground data. Demand-side companies, such as food manufacturers, should work with their suppliers to do the same.

The second step is to assess farm level interventions and practices, such as regenerative agriculture, which can provide emission reductions and improve resilience to extreme weather events. Companies can explore mechanisms such as “insetting" ( emission reductions interventions within their own value chain), or “offsetting", which involves purchasing credits or developing projects outside their direct value chain. In Japan, the J-Credit Scheme has various options to encourage best practices and create financial incentives for companies to implement emission reduction projects.

The third and the most important step is implementation of the identified interventions. This involves coordination and collaboration of multiple stakeholders such as land owners, technical experts, local authorities and financial institutions.

The final (and ongoing) step is monitoring progress and ensuring adherence to the applicable standards and guidelines to ensure alignment with latest climate science and avoiding greenwashing.

Creating synergies through stakeholder engagement

Despite progress in research and academia, there are many challenges facing Japan's agricultural sector to implement methane reduction measures on farms. While countries are increasingly raising their climate ambitions, a greater sector-focused effort is needed to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement. The key is to develop synergies between agriculture stakeholders, governments, research institutes, the private sector and producers to create greater policy engagement and a cohesive ecosystem to adopt methane mitigation and adaptation at a national scale.

Japanese companies have a great opportunity to lead the way on this important topic and South Pole Japan is an experienced partner to support agricultural organisations to take their next (or first) steps on their climate journey.

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