Meat and dairy industry pushing for a metric that minimises their methane emissions

10 Nov 2023 Growing the Good

A new metric for measuring methane being championed by the livestock industry could allow big polluters to minimise their methane emissions and avoid climate action, reveals a new report published by the Changing Markets Foundation today.

The briefing shows that using GWP* to measure the heating impact of short lived greenhouse gases instead of the current metric, GWP100, could radically alter how livestock emissions are assessed. For example:

  • Fonterra, the largest dairy exporter in the world, could claim no net warming with a 17% reduction in emissions by 2030 using GWP*. With a 30% reduction it could claim to be removing 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere each year however estimates using GWP100 suggest it would still be emitting over 21 million tonnes of emissions annually – similar to the annual emissions of Sri Lanka.
  • Tyson, one of the world’s largest processors of chicken, beef, and pork, could use GWP* to claim that a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030 means it is removing 82.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere a year yet calculations using GWP100 suggest it would still be emitting 58.5 million tonnes annually – similar to the annual emissions of Peru.
  • New Zealand could claim to be methane negative – minus 1 million tonnes of methane a year – with a 10% reduction in methane emissions by 2038 using GWP*. Yet estimates using GWP100 reveal the country would still be emitting 30 million tonnes of methane each year. Over half of New Zealand’s emissions come from agriculture.

The report also highlights the significant pressure from meat and dairy corporations, farm lobby groups, and countries with large livestock sectors for policy makers to adopt the metric.  For example:

  • Ireland: Internal documents released under a Freedom of Information request reveal the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is keen to adopt GWP* amid concerns that it will need to reduce herd numbers to meet its climate commitments and that it has been advocating for GWP* at the international level including during discussions on the adoption of the Global Methane Pledge.
  • New Zealand: The Federated Farmers of New Zealand, Dairy New Zealand, Meat Industry New Zealand and Beef & Lamb New Zealand have been lobbying for the government to adopt GWP* and push for its use in international climate negotiations. The government is currently reviewing the use of metrics.
  • United States: The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a trade group representing cattle producers and meat companies such as Tyson and McDonalds, has used the metric to argue that American cattle ‘may not be contributing much at all to global warming’ and says it is working with the International Beef Alliance – which is composed primarily of meat trade associations from North America, Latin America and Australasia – ‘to ensure that everybody is working towards adoption of GWP*.’
  • IPCC: 16 agricultural organisations from the UK and New Zealand have also called for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to consider using GWP* to measure non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions. The National Farmers Union and the British Meat Producers Association have also lobbied the UK Committee on Climate Change about the metric.

GWP* measures the warming potential of changes in the rate of emissions between two points in time. Governments and the IPCC currently use GWP100 to measure the warming potential of total greenhouse gas emissions over a 100 year period (expressed as carbon dioxide equivalents). The state of New York recently moved to GWP20 emissions accounting to better reflect the severity of methane pollution in the short term, and the benefits of reducing it quickly.

Proponents of GWP* say it better accounts for the short lived nature of methane however there are significant problems with its application. For example, because GWP* measures the rate of change in emissions, countries which increase livestock herds from a low base –  often in the Global South – would be viewed as more polluting than major emitters with large but relatively stable herds. While corporations with high but stable methane emissions could claim to be climate neutral or even climate negative based on minor reductions in methane emissions.

Methane has around 28 times the heating impact of carbon dioxide over a 100 year period and around 80 times over a 20 year period. Livestock farming is the single largest source of methane from human activity, accounting for 0.5C of warming since pre-industrial times. Under current policies, emissions from agriculture are expected to increase by between 5 – 16% by 2030 compared to 2020 levels.

Nusa Urbancic, Director of Changing Markets Foundation said: “GWP* will allow the world’s biggest methane polluter to downplay emissions and dodge climate action. It will penalise poor countries that are expanding livestock production from a low base while rewarding the world’s biggest industrial livestock producers with millions of heads of cattle. Reducing methane is  the fastest way to limit global warming – governments need to seize this opportunity and reject GWP*. ”

Jennifer Jacquet, Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Miami and author of ‘The Playbook – How to Deny Science, Sell Lies, and Make a Killing in the Corporate World’, said:  “The industry is using all kinds of magic math as it hopes to maintain herd sizes and continue avoiding any regulatory oversight, but governments should not fall for these fuzzy metrics — reducing absolute methane emissions from animal agriculture is imperative and we have no time to spare.”





Changing Markets Foundation CEO Nusa Urbancic (EN, SI, FR), +44 74 79 015 909

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