Cutting Agricultural Methane Emissions Can Help Save the Planet While Increasing Yields and Improving Lives

by CCAC secretariat - 21 December, 2021
The Climate and Clean Air Coalition is helping countries reduce methane emissions from livestock and rice to slow global warming, boost agricultural production, and save lives from air pollution.

Agriculture sustains humanity and provides livelihoods for over 800 million people—27 per cent of the global workforce. But many agricultural practices emit a substantial amount of  greenhouse gases, including large amounts of methane, which is many times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming our planet and adds to dangerous air pollution. 

The world must reduce methane to achieve the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to well below 2 and preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius (⁰C) . The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC)’s Global Methane Assessment found that human-caused methane emissions can be reduced by up to 45 per cent this decade. This would avert almost 0.3⁰C of warming by 2045.

Approximately 42 per cent of human caused methane emissions comes from agriculture, yet reducing emissions from the sector presents a challenge because it’s made up of so many smallholder farmers spread across the world who rely on it to survive. However, to accomplish the steep methane cuts needed, all forms of mitigation must be addressed. This is why the CCAC is promoting methane-reducing agricultural strategies that slash emissions while increasing yields to ensure a habitable planet capable of feeding generations to come. 

Avoiding these emissions doesn’t have to come at the cost of livelihoods, in fact, it can go hand in hand with improvements in cost-effectiveness, nutrition, and animal health.
Alice Alpert

“The entire world recognizes that methane is by far the priority short lived climate pollutant that we need to tackle right now,” said Alice Alpert, from the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the U.S. State Department. “Avoiding these emissions doesn’t have to come at the cost of livelihoods, in fact, it can go hand in hand with improvements in cost-effectiveness, nutrition, and animal health.”

The CCAC is working with governments to implement agricultural practices that reduce SLCP emissions and deliver rapid climate and air quality benefits by focusing on methane emissions from paddy rice cultivation and livestock enteric fermentation. Rice, the staple food for half of the world, is responsible for up to 11 per cent, and livestock for about 32 per cent, of human made methane emissions. 

“Unlike dealing with longer lived greenhouse gases, where the benefits are realized only in the long term, by reducing methane we get both long term and near term climate benefits,” said Drew Shindell, CCAC Special Advisor for Action on Methane and Professor of Climate Sciences at Duke University. “When you think about the consequences we're seeing now with heat waves, with disruption in the monsoon rainfall, with wildfires in Europe, Australia and North America, there’s just so many very severe impacts happening now that it is vital to reduce the damage being felt over the next few decades and methane is the strongest lever we have to do that.”

[Current climate impacts] make it economically and ethically vital to reduce methane as soon as possible, for the sake of food security and for the sake of human well-being.
Drew Shindell

Methane is also a precursor to tropospheric ozone which means that reducing it produces major air pollution benefits which, because ozone stunts plant growth, can not only increase agricultural production but also prevent 260,000 premature deaths annually from air pollution by 2045.

“All of these things make it economically and ethically vital to reduce methane as soon as possible, for the sake of food security and for the sake of human well-being,” said Shindell.

At COP 26 in Glasgow, United Kingdom, the United States (U.S.) and European Union (E.U.) launched the Global Methane Pledge, an initiative to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030. 110 countries have signed onto the pledge and philanthropies raised $328 million to kickstart methane reduction activities.  

Reducing Emissions, Not Productivity

Rice is a vital part of the economy in many countries, including Vietnam and Bangladesh. Vietnam produces more than 45 million tons of rice a year and is the second largest exporter in the world. The country’s land use sector is responsible for almost 67 per cent of its methane emissions, with 75 per cent of that coming from rice cultivation, said Dr. Tran Dai Nghia, Director of Vietnam’s Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development (IPSARD).

Vietnam produces more than 45 million tons of rice a year and is the second largest exporter in the world.

Vietnam is working with the CCAC to reduce these emissions through public private partnerships and community engagement that teaches farmers to use farming techniques like Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD), which can reduce water use by up to 30 per cent and methane emissions by 48 per cent while increasing crop yields.

Bangladesh is working with the CCAC and the International Rice Research Institute on AWD pilot programs in the north and south of the country. The program has organized farmer training, field visits, stakeholder meetings, a national workshop, and widespread media coverage to help farmers adopt a variety of methane reducing strategies including AWD, water management, fertilizer management, planting more efficient rice varieties, conservation agriculture, and improving existing cropping patterns.

“Despite being a highly vulnerable country to climate change, Bangladesh contributes less than 0.3 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Nonetheless, Bangladesh wants to play an active role in the global network to reduce emissions,” said Dr. S.M. Mofijul Islam, Senior Scientific Officer and Head, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), Regional Station, Satkhira, Bangladesh.

The co-benefits of these strategies include more efficient water use, increased crop yields, and reduced air pollution, which means they’ll also help achieve a variety of national sustainable development goals. In Bangladesh, these strategies will help progress the country’s comprehensive development plan, Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 and the Bangladesh National Action Plan for reducing SLCPs. It will also help to achieve the country’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) goal to reduce methane emissions by 17 per cent by 2030.

Vietnam’s efforts will help achieve its National Strategy on Climate Change and the country’s transition to a sustainable food system. It will also help the country achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and its current NDC target of reducing methane by 27 per cent by 2030, if it receives international support.

Livestock Improving Livelihoods

The CCAC is working hard to help governments reduce the methane emitted by enteric fermentation, which is caused by the digestive process in cattle, sheep, and other animals.

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Cattle ranchers discuss climate smart livestock production in Uruguay

A major leader in this work is Uruguay, where livestock production is responsible for 62 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions. Beef is a major economic resource for Uruguay, responsible for 70 per cent of its exports. 

The project Ganaderia y Clima, fosters climate smart cattle ranching.It is being carried out in partnership with the CCAC, Global Environment Facility (GEF), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Uruguay’s Ministries of Agriculture and Environment, national farmers organizations, and national research institutions.  The project currently provides technical assistance to develop lower emissions ranching practices to 60 farms. This includes training in techniques like managing and improving grass and feed, managing cattle’s body fat reserves, and carefully monitoring and recording their emissions.

The preliminary results from the first year of work have been remarkably successful in spite of severe droughts, said Felipe Garcia, Deputy Coordinator of the Livestock and Climate project at FAO Uruguay. Emissions intensity per unit of product decreased while overall beef production increased by 6 per cent and sheep increased by 15 per cent. Some 60 per cent of the participating farms increased their net income by 50 per cent from the previous year.

It’s a sign that this win-win agricultural strategy isn’t just better for the planet, it’s better for farmers too.  

Keys to Success

There are two important areas of support that countries need to succeed: increased climate finance and solid Monitoring Reporting and Verification (MRV) practices to quantify reductions.

“The reason we have MRV in UNFCCC processes is to build transparency. It is all about building trust and seeing whether we’re actually achieving the objectives set out in NDCs or national policies,” said Marci Baranski, at the UN Environment Programme’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. “Strengthening institutional arrangements for MRV will really enhance countries' transparency and improve processes to develop greenhouse gas inventories and for national reporting.”

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Methane from paddy rice is measured to asses the mitigation potential from AWD.

To do this, Baranski says, countries need data to produce accurate national emissions estimates. When it comes to tracking something like AWD, countries need to carry out activities like national surveys to estimate the area of land using the technique. Developing country-specific emissions factors in line with international protocols is critical for countries to develop a more accurate greenhouse gas inventory. Regular data collection and management is important, as is coordination between ministries and research institutions to streamline data collection. 

In Vietnam, the CCAC is working with the International Rice Research Institute and CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) to help the government assess mitigation options, develop a plan for implementation, and measure the impacts.

In spite of its importance and the fact that over half of all updated NDCs include improved livestock and grassland management, the climate finance available for agriculture is actually decreasing, said Martial Bernoux, Senior National Resources Officer at FAO.

“It’s a major gap that has to be addressed because that sector deserves funding and financial flows,” said Bernoux. “Countries are increasing their ambition but we need to have the corresponding funds if these are going to turn into action.” 

“All this is working for the benefits of smallholders, there is better production for the farmer, better nutrition, better environmental benefits for all, and better life. Leaving no one behind is really what we want to achieve.”

This story was produced as part of a series of CCAC webinars looking at reducing methane from the three main human caused sources – agriculture, fossil fuels, and waste. You can find a recording of the original agriculture webinar here

Pollutants (SLCPs)