Image: Livestock makes up a hefty part of agricultural emissions in the EU (unsplash)
It's no secret that agriculture is a major contributor to climate change – and livestock is the main culprit. According to a recent study by the European Commission, it makes up over 80% of the total greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in the bloc. Is there a way to tackle this? Emily Sharples spoke to Hannes Etter and Jasmin Schwaegli from the European projects team to discover more about one of our newest project types: feed ingredients that cut the greenhouse gases produced by livestock.
Emily: When it comes to climate change, one of South Pole's mottos is "climate action for all". This is something that our hundreds of climate protection projects around the world show. That being said, we also need to support climate action in Europe. What are the biggest sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the region and what can we do about them?
Hannes: We have the usual suspects: transport, energy and fuel, but the next biggest emission source is agriculture. Attention is increasingly being directed at this sector, not only because it heavily contributes to GHG emissions, with 10% of the total share, but also because it's being impacted by changing weather. While technological solutions are already available for transport, energy and fuel, when it comes to agriculture, there's a bit of a blind spot. It needs its own innovation and opportunities to enable a shift to more sustainable systems. This is what we are aiming to achieve.
Jasmin: There is also rising consumer demand for sustainably produced food. If we break down the emissions from agriculture, livestock, particularly cattle, are responsible for a large chunk of the emissions. So, naturally, this has been a big focus for us. In many cases, farmers and cooperatives are totally on board with taking action, but it's a case of getting the right incentives and systems in place. Currently, using carbon markets to unlock finance and share expertise is one of the best solutions we have to drive climate action at scale.
Emily: When I think of the agricultural sector, methane always comes to mind. Why is methane such an issue?
Hannes: It's easy to forget that, as cows are happily chomping on tufts of grass, they are releasing a hefty quantity of GHG emissions into the atmosphere!
Jasmin: Methane is a potent GHG that actually has much higher heat-trapping potential than carbon dioxide – between 28 and 36 times higher! Large amounts of methane are produced during the digestive process of cows and other livestock (the technical term for this is "enteric fermentation") – which they then burp out! Methane emissions from enteric fermentation are responsible for more than 35% of total agricultural GHG emissions in the EU.
Enteric fermentation of cows Source: FOA, 2022
Emily: So, cows are responsible for climate change?! Can you explain what we are doing to support climate action in the agricultural space?
Jasmin: They're not entirely to blame, but reducing their environmental footprint could have significant impacts. We are setting up certified climate projects that reduce the methane produced by cows and their hooved friends by positively impacting their digestive system (in very simple terms). We do this by adding ingredients to cows' feed.
Hannes: There are actually a few different products that you can add; most of them are natural and contain essential oils, plant oils, like linseed, or even garlic - and apparently the cows find them really tasty. And there is nothing to worry about for the animals as there are strict rules on what can be added.
Jasmin: We approach our project holistically, it's not just about cutting methane. Many of the products have been shown to improve the milk yield and increase the overall health and fertility of the cows.
Emily: Can you walk me through the certification process? What safeguards are in place to uphold the environmental integrity of the project?
Hannes: This is the slightly nerdy part, but it's important to understand what's required under the carbon market to get these projects off the ground. First of all, every technology must have an approved methodology that allows us to measure the emission reductions a project can achieve. So far, we've used a methodology under the VCS, one of the world's leading voluntary carbon standards, but there are other national standards that could be used.
Jasmin: I really want to stress that the certification standard requires three applicable peer-reviewed studies that show that the feed additives reduce methane and that there is no harm caused to the animals. On top of that, there is often national legislation we need to follow.
Hannes: That's a great point. Also, it typically takes up to a year to set up a project – that's from starting conversations with the farmers all the way to issuing carbon credits. It's a long time, which goes to show the rigorous process all our projects have to go through!
Emily: You definitely need some patience, then. So, the certification of these projects provides companies with a guarantee of their environmental integrity and helps farmers receive finance. Why do the farmers need carbon finance to set up the projects in the first place?
Jasmin: The feed that contains the methane-cutting ingredient is more expensive than normal feed. And then, there's the extra reporting and admin work for farmers, so there needs to be some incentive for them to change from the business-as-usual scenario.
Hannes: One of the key principles underpinning the carbon certification standards is that projects need carbon finance to be established. This means that companies buying carbon credits from such projects are supporting climate action that could not otherwise happen.
Emily: How much are these projects really helping cut emissions within the agricultural sector?
Hannes: This depends heavily on the specific feed ingredient that is used. But, on average, we're seeing a reduction that translates to about 4 tonnes of CO2 per year for 10 cows – that's equivalent to flying from Zurich to Singapore. Another way of looking at it is that it's about a 9% reduction in the carbon footprint of the milk carton in your fridge!
Jasmin: The more we can scale these projects, the more impact they will have. This technology began really as an innovative, niche solution, but thanks to rising climate awareness and new carbon accounting methodologies, its popularity is growing.
Emily: It's great to be assured of the credibility of this new project type. The past six months have shown a huge surge in demand for high-quality action projects like these. What's driving the jump in demand and what impact has this had on local action?
Hannes: We've seen a big shift in the past two years; COP26 gave a great boost to climate action and to the growth of the voluntary carbon market. People who typically weren't talking about climate action are now talking about it. Farmers, for example, are incredibly motivated and it helps that the rising prices of carbon credits create a stronger incentive to act. I think the more we can democratise climate action, the better.
Emily: Last question, what kind of companies are expressing interest in these project types?
Jasmin: These are new projects, but there's a growing movement towards using carbon finance for sectoral decarbonisation driven by the SBTi. By “sectoral decarbonisation", I mean contributing to climate action in a specific sector and encouraging innovation. It's for this reason that these projects are particularly interesting to European clients in the food and food retail sector –especially those who have links to dairy.
Hannes: The carbon markets are really evolving fast and it's incredibly exciting to see how it's helping to turn emerging technologies into mainstream solutions that cut GHG emissions at scale. Unsurprisingly, many companies with European locations want to buy carbon credits from local projects as part of their climate strategy. Combined with international projects, they can create a portfolio of projects that really resonate with their stakeholders.
Emily: Thank you both for taking time to talk to me and look forward to seeing how these projects develop further!
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