Global livestock emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas (GHG), are substantially higher than previous estimates, a NASA-sponsored study has shown, highlighting gaps in the ways data is tracked.
The study, published last week in the journal Carbon Balance and Management, comes as geoscience researchers in BC tested a drone system using technology originally devised for NASA missions to Mars to create what they say is Canada’s first real-time tracking of methane.
Both developments should help policymakers get a handle on the true level of methane emissions. Methane accounts for only 16 percent of global GHGs, but is 25 times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2. Efforts to avoid dangerous global warming are at risk if policymakers base decisions on unreliable data.
But direct measurements of methane are difficult to assess so they are typically offered as estimates, or calculations based on multiple assumptions, in particular, about the amount of methane produced by cows in their stomachs. In recent years, scientists have questioned the amount of methane produced from livestock including inventories based on years-old data from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC).
These concerns pushed researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture backed, in part by NASA to produce new methane projections based on recent changes in animal body mass, feed quality and quantity, milk productivity and new practices in animal and manure management. They found that livestock emissions were 11 percent higher than IPCC estimates.
The authors of the study found that methane emissions from livestock have increased the most in rapidly developing nations with their soaring demand for meat. The increase was less pronounced in the US and Canada, while methane emissions had actually dropped in Europe.
This substantial adjustment could account for a significant portion of the uptick in annual global methane emissions observed in 2007 that has surprised scientists.
At last week’s meeting of the Union of BC Municipalities, Geoscience BC, the non-profit association of provincial earth scientists, demonstrated how it will use drones and technology developed by NASA to seek methane emissions on Mars to detect and analyze aerial GHG emissions in BC. Here, gas leaks from natural gas wells and pipelines are a main source of methane.
In those regions home to both cattle and natural gas extraction, it is difficult to tell who is responsible for the emissions. The drone project, with its close-quarters surveillance, aims to correct this problem.
Geoscience BC says that this will also enable them to produce a real-time GHG database, so that the province would not have to wait years to see whether methane projections matched up with observations.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.