Seeing Stars: the new metric that could allow the meat and dairy industry to avoid climate action

November 2023 Report
Seeing Stars: report cover image

Executive summary

Addressing methane emissions is essential to limiting the impacts of the climate crisis and keeping the global temperature increase under 1.5°C, as set out in the Paris Agreement. Methane has extremely powerful effects on the climate in the short term, so cutting methane emissions now represents our best chance to put a brake on temperature rises and avoid potentially catastrophic tipping points.

However, the animal farming industry is promoting a new metric for measuring methane emissions, called GWP*, that could undermine these efforts. GWP*, which focuses on changes in emissions over decadal timescales rather than the absolute level of emissions, is presented as a more accurate way to measure the warming impact of changes in methane emissions over time. However, by taking current levels of methane emissions as their baseline, high-polluting countries and companies can use GWP* to present even minor reductions in methane as negative emissions or cooling. This briefing reveals attempts by the farming lobby groups from high meat and dairy producing countries, and their scientists, to promote GWP* accounting, in order to make meat and dairy production appear “climate neutral” and escape significant transformation of the industry.

For the purposes of this report, we calculated different levels of emissions reductions for one meat and one dairy company, as well as for New Zealand – a country where a significant share of emissions come from agricultural methane. We compared emissions reductions calculated using GWP100, the well-established metric which measures the global warming potential of a gas over a 100-year period, and GWP*.

Using GWP100, emissions estimates for Tyson, one of the world’s largest processors of chicken, beef and pork, show that with a 30% emissions reductions by 2030, the company would be assessed as responsible for roughly 58.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent – similar to the annual emissions of Peru. However, using GWP*, the company could claim negative emissions of roughly minus 82.6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent for the same reductions. For Fonterra, the largest dairy exporter in the world, a 30% reduction between 2020 and 2030 calculated with GWP* would enable the company to claim to be taking around 19 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere, while according to GWP100 calculations it would still be responsible for roughly 21.6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent – similar to annual emissions of Sri Lanka. Both companies could claim climate neutrality with tiny levels of annual emissions reductions, 1.4% and 1.7% respectively.

We calculated a similar trend for New Zealand, where half of all emissions come from agriculture, mostly methane. With a modest 10% reduction in methane emissions, the country could report negative methane using GWP* by 2038. Falsely accounting this as cooling could allow less accountability for emissions reduction in other sectors, which proponents of the GWP* methodology have put forward as a benefit.

These calculations show how the biggest methane polluters can use the GWP* metric to manipulate their overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions accounting and escape accountability.

We found evidence of the big agriculture lobby pushing the GWP* methodology from New Zealand to Ireland to the United States and elsewhere. With this, they are trying to avoid the introduction of robust climate policies, which would address the 332% increase in methane emissions from the farmed animal sector between 1890 and 2014. The GWP* metric also raises fundamental ethical concerns, as countries with less production of meat and dairy, which are also often the most affected by the climate crisis, will be penalised the most, while major emitters can use minor methane reductions to greenwash their climate commitments, and could even declare their products or the whole dairy/meat sectors as climate neutral.

The following report unveils the profound implications the adoption of the GWP* methodology could have on climate policies, equity and the transformation of the food system. It urges caution on the part of policymakers, who must resist lobbying attempts by the meat and dairy industry and avoid adopting the GWP* metric.

You might also like...