The IPCC says methane traps 84 times as much heat as carbon dioxide over its first two decades, and 28 times as much over a century. This is a sobering thought if you think we are close to a tipping point where an unstoppable feedback loop takes hold.
A paper published by the American Geophysical Union says there has been a shocking surge in methane levels over the last decade. It is potent enough to blow apart the Paris climate accord and to overwhelm any gains from cutting CO2 emissions.
Theories vary on why this is happening but it may be linked to greater rainfall in the tropics and to methane release from melting permafrost in Greenland. One hypothesis is that global warming itself is causing methane to linger longer in the atmosphere, meaning the feedback loop is already under way. If so, we will have to take even more drastic action.
«The next 30 years are a really big deal. We’re heading for threshold effects,» said Channing Arndt from the International Food Policy Research Institute. «You can’t get to grips with the climate problem just by working on energy. We have to start on meat.»
Farming makes up 14.5 per cent of global emissions, most of it from livestock.
The crop industry is hardly innocent either. Fertilisers are the biggest cause of nitrous oxide emissions, which have 280 times the warming potency of C02 and damage the ozone layer. This is linked to livestock since forests are being destroyed at a frightening pace to clear grain fields for animal feed.
Global Forest Watch says the world lost 39 million acres of tropical forest in 2017, equivalent to the territory of Bangladesh. This is double the average pace seen from 2000 to 2008. The big three were Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia.
We are in trouble and doing something about it is going to involve massive technological and economic disruption. Any incumbent betting that the status quo can continue risks being swept away, much as the great telecom companies of the Nineties were outflanked by mobile phones, or as the sleepy power utilities saw business models wrecked by solar and wind. Barclays says investors should brace for a methane tax — or a global «red meat tax» — and «aggressive regulatory change». California has already passed draconian rules demanding a 40 per cent cut in greenhouse emissions from its 1.7 million herd of cows by 2030. Canada has launched a farm carbon offset scheme.
Human ingenuity is rising to the challenge. The Dutch firm DSM is working on a «clean cow» animal feed that cuts emissions from belching cattle by 25 per cent to 30 per cent, seemingly without harm to animal welfare.
Barclays said it could be a $US1 billion ($1.4 billion) «blockbuster» for the company. DSM plans to work with the French food company Danone, which has pledged to cut its greenhouse footprint by 50 per cent from 2015 levels. Farmers have an incentive to buy the feed since lower energy loss from methane causes the animals to grow 3 per cent larger.
The Swiss agri-tech firm Agolin Ruminant is developing a feed using coriander and cloves. Others are trying garlic and cinnamon. The most avant-garde project uses an additive of seaweed that purportedly slashes emissions by 99 per cent. What it does to the taste of the beef remains to be seen.
It is a field in ferment, and powerful investors are starting to throw their weight around. The Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (Fairr) network is policing the behaviour of agricultural companies on behalf of pension funds, private equity groups and financial players such as UBS, Schroders, Aviva, and Handelsbanken. Together they have $US11.6 trillion under management.
Fairr is calling on companies to build a carbon price into their long-range planning, modelled on Unilever’s internal tariff of $US30 a tonne. Fish and livestock companies must stop the mass use of antibiotics to boost animal growth or as a prophylactic.
Violators must expect to lose their «social licence to operate». It singled out Brazil’s JBS, the world’s biggest meat producer, for its reliance on suppliers suspected of chopping down Amazonian forest.
This is not like the fossil disinvestment movement. Power generation and transport fuel can mostly switch to renewables at viable cost. It is another matter feeding a world population on track for nine or ten billion beyond 2050, with a rising middle class in Asia picking up Western dietary habits.
An Oxford-led team of global scientists published a cri de coeur in Nature last October. It is the definitive paper to date on the emergency now facing the world. It warned that the damage to the terrestrial ecosystems and freshwater resources, as well as ocean acidification, are going «beyond the planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity».
There is no magic formula or technology coming that can avert grim choices. They argue that the only plausible way to feed a population growing by another two billion mid-century — with incomes in Asia catching up with West — is to switch to a «flexitarian» diet and work on every front at once.
Europeans and Americans will have to cut their consumption of beef and pork by 90 per cent and milk by 60 per cent. We will have to learn to live on beans and pulses. That is the world’s default setting and our probable future.
Fortunes will be made by companies finding ways to make this less shockingly uncomfortable. My bet is the investment darlings of the 2020s will be the agri-tech entrepreneurs. The next Apple will be a food company.