Cows and sheep are the key to success in reducing UK methane emissions
This would reduce methane by 51.4 million carbon-equivalent tons (MtCO2e) in 2020 to 35.9 million tonnes in 2030. The government has not yet provided any specific plans for meeting this commitment.
In terms of global heating, a tonne (or 28 tonnes) of CH4 is the equivalent of approximately 28 tonnes (or 450 kilograms) of CO2. The CH4 remains in the atmosphere for a much shorter time compared to CO2, which means it has a significant short-term impact on global warming but a smaller effect long-term.
The main goal must still be to reduce CO2, which can stay in the atmosphere between 300 and 1,000 years. However, cutting methane emission would buy time to keep global warming under manageable limits before 2050.
Reaching the 2030 target
Agriculture is a major source of methane emissions. In 2020, 54 % of UK methane emission was generated by agriculture. The majority of this came from enteric fermentaion (also known as belching), which cows and lambs cause. It’s the same situation across Europe .
UK agricultural methane emissions have remained relatively constant for the last 30 years. Meanwhile, emissions from waste management and energy have been decreasing. The importance of farming emissions has, therefore, increased proportionally. Reduced methane emissions will help to achieve the 2030 target by reducing the number of animals that produce methane and their demand.
Cuts in UK livestock can help achieve the 2030 target for methane. Maciej Olszewski/Shutterstock
Some data suggests we are on the right track. The UK saw a decrease between 2008-9 to 2018-9 in beef and lamb consumption. In 2001, the Foot and Mouth outbreak led to a substantial reduction in sheep flocks. This continued until 2010, although there hasn’t been a consistent pattern. There’s still much to do – “business as usual,” however, will not help the UK meet its 2030 methane emission target.
In agriculture, we require vaccines, technical improvements, and cattle feed mixtures. These measures could reduce emissions from beef and dairy by 10% by 2030. To meet this target, the dairy and beef herds will need to be each decreased by 20% and sheep flocks by one-third.
This would mean reducing the amount of food and green waste going to landfills and sending more instead to anaerobic digesters. This would reduce the amount of green and food debris that goes to landfills by sending more to digesters for breakdown.
Change your mind.
Since the UK exited the EU, there have been some positive changes in policy, such as the introduction of programs that prioritize sustainable agriculture. These changes, however, are under intense pressure and will take time to be implemented. They may also not be evenly distributed across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
Data from the survey shows that more farmers will consider changing their farming practices for the sake of climate. The percentage of English farmers who believe greenhouse gases are not important or at all when making decisions about their farms has steadily declined, from 48% to 29% by 2022. However, the percentage of people taking action to reduce emissions has remained at 60%.
But consumers must also make changes. In the UK and other developed countries, it is widely acknowledged that the consumption of dairy and red meat is excessive, both in terms of health and sustainability. Prices of these products need to reflect their true production costs in order to provide incentives for farmers, such as lowering emissions per liter produced of milk. It could also reduce the amount of food that is thrown away.
Red meat can be harmful to your health and the environment. Shutterstock
Reduced livestock could have many other benefits for the environment, such as allowing more land to be used for human food production. About 55% of UK cereal production (wheat, barley, oats), along with the majority of rapeseed, maize, and oats, is used for animal feed.
By switching to crops that are staples for humans, the UK could reduce its greenhouse gases and improve food security. It would also be protected from the price increases caused by events like the invasion of Ukraine.
In order to achieve the UK’s commitments to the international community, the government must make urgent changes in the area of food and agriculture policy.