The greenwashing effect of GWP* – the new methane metric pushed by Big Agriculture

22 Jan 2024 Blog
Picture of Nusa Urbancic

With food system transformation a big priority for 2024, methane pollution and the fact that meat and dairy production is one of its biggest drivers is rightly getting more attention. But parts of the industry are working behind the scenes trying to derail climate action in the sector.

At Changing Markets Foundation, we recently released a report called Seeing Stars that explores a new methane metric GWP* [pronounced ‘G-W-P star’], which is being pushed by the livestock industry [GWP stands for global warming potential].

First presented at COP24 in 2018, GWP* is a metric its proponents claim better reflects the short-term warming impact of methane across a decadal timescale. In contrast, the metric that is currently used to convert methane into CO2 equivalent emissions (GWP100) measures the absolute warming potential of total GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions over a 100-year period

Its potency and short-lived nature make rapid methane cuts one of the best strategies to stay under 1.5 degree temperature increase. However, the change of metric to GWP* would undermine these efforts.

Potentially staggering impacts of using GWP* on corporate emissions reporting

In our report, we presented some calculations that show staggering impacts changing the metric would have for corporate emissions.

For example, using GWP*, Fonterra – the largest dairy exporter in the world – could claim that a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030 would remove 19 million tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) from the atmosphere every year. If GWP100 were used instead, a 30% reduction would still translate into yearly emissions of around 21 million tons – comparable to the annual emissions of Sri Lanka.

Tyson – one of the world’s biggest processors of chicken, beef, and pork – could likewise use GWP* to claim that a 30% cut in emissions by 2030 would remove 82.6 million tons of CO2e from the atmosphere per year. Under GWP100 however, it’s made clear that a 30% reduction would still mean emissions equivalent to 58.5 million tons of CO2 – this is roughly the annual emissions of Peru.

Similarly, New Zealand could claim to be methane negative by 2038 under GWP* with 10% methane reductions. If these reductions continued until 2050, it could claim to be removing 1 million tons of CO2e of methane a year, but under GWP100 the same methane reduction would translate into absolute emissions of 30 million tons of CO2e.

The political adoption of GWP* spells disaster for the climate crisis

These examples, from companies such as Fonterra and Tyson, and from countries like New Zealand, hammer home the evidence that the use of GWP* would lead to industry-wide greenwashing and undermine serious climate action.
Despite this, GWP* has a range of supporters pushing for governments to adopt this misleading metric – the majority of which is made up by the beef and dairy industries in countries with some of the highest methane pollution.

Their campaigning for the GWP* spiked in 2020 when 16 UK industry groups and farming unions submitted a joint letter requesting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to adopt GWP*.

It continued in 2022 when chief executive of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), claimed GWP* would depict “the true story of methane” and that, as part of the International Beef Alliance, the NCBA is working to ensure a world-wide adoption of GWP*.

Comprising major food companies including Cargill, Tyson Foods, and McDonalds, the NCBA represents 175,000 cattle producers.

Supporters such as the NCBA insist that GWP100 unfairly represents the livestock sector, arguing that GWP* would be able to create a more accurate and positive picture. The science, however, begs to differ, with a recent paper published in Environmental Research Letters explaining that the use of GWP* depicts only temporary climate neutrality and that the use of this metric is misleading as it suggests that stabilized methane emissions mean climate neutrality, even if the sector’s total emission remain sky high.

A bias for big polluters could be created as industry-friendly academics are publishing a number of scientific studies that present GWP* as a “better” metric for livestock industry.

The damaging environmental impact of the livestock sector

The call for the widespread adoption of GWP* – which would fail to address the disproportionate methane emissions from the livestock sector – is an example of ‘agricultural exceptionalism’, a trend that is becoming increasingly exposed through the work of media and NGOs.

It’s the idea that the livestock sector is allowed to follow a different set of rules compared to any other economic sector – a phenomenon that has dire consequences for the planet and for the sector itself.

This is because agriculture is the world’s biggest methane emitter, releasing approximately 40% of global methane. The concentration of methane in the atmosphere in 2021 stood at 262% above pre- industrial levels, a shocking figure. At the same time the increasing number of farmed animals means that emissions from this sector resulted in a 332% increase in methane between 1890 and 2014.

This number shows no sign of slowing down, with one report estimating the number of farmed animals to double by 2050, while methane emissions from the sector are projected to increase by 40%.

By trying to downplay the impact of methane on global warming, the livestock industry is essentially shooting itself in the foot, as this is one of the sectors that will be most affected by climate change.

Farmers all around the world are already feeling the impact of climate change on their lives and livelihoods and this will only get worse the more temperatures rise. A peer reviewed study in The Lancet found that heat stress alone can lead to significant production losses where the global meat and dairy sector could see annual losses between $15 billion (in a low emissions scenario) and $40 billion (in a high emissions scenario) by the end of the century.

This represents between 3.7 to 9.8% of 2005 value of the sector. And heat stress is just one of the factors that will affect dairy and meat production.

Is a green future for the livestock industry possible?

Even on the corporate side there was some movement to address methane emissions at COP28. The Bel Group, Danone, General Mills, Kraft Heinz, Nestlé, and a part of Lactalis publicly pledged to report and reduce their methane emissions. Although from these companies only Danone has a methane reduction target of 30% by 2030 for its fresh milk range, this move sends an important signal: some of the world’s largest consumer-facing dairy companies will demand transparency and reductions of methane from dairy producers.

But the issue of methane reduction does not stop here–we can expect more interest in this topic from policymakers, investors and even consumers.

Without vital climate and methane action, livestock production will fail to be part of the solution and achieve the goals of COP28. In 2024, more needs to be done – and this means focusing on real action to report and reduce methane emissions, rather than distraction such as pushing for the GWP* metric.

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