A combination of miscalculated livestock emissions and ill-informed assumptions that cutting out red meat from people’s diets will stop global warming risk alienating the section of society which has the biggest role to play in mitigating climate change.
Farmers, who manage 85 per cent of the UK’s land area, are key to the climate change solution, Oxford Real Farming Conference heard, but misinformation being spread - particularly around methane – could be particularly harmful.
ffinlo Costain, chief executive of climate and food security think tank Farmwel, said far from being unsustainable, grass based cattle and sheep systems can be climate neutral by 2030, and they can help to restore biodiversity and soil health.
“Although livestock produce methane almost constantly, the focus on their emissions is misleading – it is the warming impact of those emissions that actually matters,” he said.
“Until now, climate science has accounted for all greenhouse gases in the same way, using a ‘global warming potential over 100 years’ metric (GWP100), which characterises emissions rather than their warming potential.
“This has fed the myth that ruminant methane is a critical contributor to the global warming problem.”
Mr Costain said that while methane was powerful, it was also a ‘short-lived’ greenhouse gas and should be considered differently from carbon dioxide, a long-lived gas.
“While carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are active in our atmosphere for many generations, methane is broken down in about a decade,” he added.
This means the methane emissions of a herd of 100 cows today have effectively replaced the emissions that were first produced when that herd was established by a previous generation of farmers.
A new metric, ‘GWP*’ developed by researchers for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), based at the University of Oxford, shows total UK agricultural emissions fell from 45.6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e) in 2016 to just 9.5 MtCO2e*.
He added: "Metrics matter - and under the old metric, the inaccurate representation of agricultural methane has allowed attention to be diverted from fossil fuels."
Jersey dairy farmer Simon Fairlie used the metaphor of methane being like a blow torch which delivers a short burst of heat while CO2 is like a hot water bottle.
"I heard this metaphor and thought the heat from the blow torch does not last for very long but the heat from all the hot water bottles mounts up," he said.
Speaking after the session, NFU vice-president Stuart Roberts said: "It is really encouraging to see scientists shedding light on the significant differences between long and short lived greenhouse gases and it’s really important for us as food producers, as well as the general public, to understand the different impacts they have on the climate."
Jonathan Foot, AHDB head of environment, said: “An increasing body of evidence suggests methane emissions, like those from livestock, should be looked at differently due to its shorter lifespan.
“However, we must acknowledge that no matter what calculation is used, the industry must strive to deliver production efficiencies whilst lowering emissions. That way we can continue to farm sustainably, bringing environmental benefits and top quality meat.”
CLA president Mark Bridgeman said it demonstrated the continued demonisation of meat production was ‘distorting the debate on combating climate change’.
It came as Extinction Rebellion used the conference and the neighbouring Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) to highlight ‘intensive’ farming systems which ‘pollute the land and add appreciably to greenhouse gas emissions in the UK’.
Demonstrators took aim at the OFC’s sponsors Syngenta, McDonalds, Sainsbury’s and M&S who they said ‘lock farmers into business as usual and disadvantages family run farms’.
“Farmers are being blamed for the climate and ecological emergency even though, for the majority, the global markets control how they manage their land,” the campaigners said in a statement.