Reducing Emissions Intensity to Feed the Planet— Now and in the Future

by CCAC secretariat - 3 July, 2020
The Climate and Clean Air Coalition is working to intensify dairy and meat production with the fewest greenhouse gas emissions possible.

Global demographics will be defined by a couple of major changes in the coming decades: a majority urban population with 68 percent of people living in cities by 2050 (up from 55 percent in 2018), and rapid population growth — particularly in Africa where population is expected to double in that same time period.

These changes present a major conundrum for those trying to balance international development with a stable climate. If current dietary trends continue, feeding all of those people is expected to drive the demand for animal-based foods up 70 percent by 2050. This will be hard to meet without increasing emissions given that livestock are already responsible for about 40 percent of methane emissions—a potent short-lived climate pollutant significantly more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Unless, of course, there was a way to feed more people with fewer livestock emissions. One important way to do that is reducing overall emissions through strategies like moving towards plant-based diets. Another important strategy is reducing emissions intensity, which can be achieved with relatively simple agricultural interventions that help optimize each animal's output. This way the growing demand for animal products can be met without increasing greenhouse gas emissions at the same rate.

Reducing emissions intensity is an important way of making it plausible that we can have both a vibrant livestock sector and reduce climate emissions
Dr. Andy Reisinger

“Ultimately, of course, we need to reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions, that’s what drives climate change, but emissions intensity is a very important entry point,” said Dr. Andy Reisinger, the former Deputy Director of the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre. “Rather than viewing climate change mitigation as an antagonist to livestock production and rural livelihoods, reducing emissions intensity is an important way of making it plausible that we can have both a vibrant livestock sector and reduce climate emissions.”

These strategies aren’t just good for the climate, they also help individual farmers produce more and increase their profitability without equally increasing their environmental consequences.

“All these things tend to reduce emissions intensity but also result in increased profitability and productivity of the livestock system that you’re dealing with— and that’s of course a core interest of livestock producers because it increases their ability to sell products into markets and it increases their resilience to shocks,” added Reisinger.

In that sense, it’s not a conundrum at all— reducing the emissions for each kilo of beef or litre of milk could help ensure the world’s growing population is fed while also charting a sustainable path forward for the climate.

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Agriculture Initiative is helping countries make this shift by catalyzing widespread changes in livestock production to produce greater efficiency and contributions to food security. Most recently, the research and interventions CCAC is supporting in Bangladesh and Ethiopia prove that relatively simple and accessible interventions— in many cases with tools farmers already have at their disposal— can dramatically improve emissions intensity.

These strategies include giving animals more nutritious feed so they gain weight or produce more milk, better herd management, which means reducing the number of animals by removing unproductive ones (dairy cows that aren’t producing milk, for example, or a female cow that isn’t getting pregnant), and bringing animals to slaughter as soon as they’ve reached the right weight. Another strategy is manure management which can mean covering manure storage, composting, or using it for biogas production. It can also include vaccinating and medicating them properly so they’re less likely to get sick or carry parasites.

Dairy cattle in Bangladesh. Photo: Vaskar Sam

One country where CCAC’s work is already making a difference is in Bangladesh, where a quarter of the population is food insecure and 36 percent of children under five suffer from stunting, a sign of chronic malnutrition. Bangladesh is also set to experience dramatic effects from climate change that will include increased intensity of natural disasters like cyclones and tidal surges resulting in flooding and reduced availability of drinking water. In fact, Bangladesh could lose 17 percent of its land and 30 percent of its food production by 2050 due to climate change.

Bangladesh is already preparing for these shifts, in part by including agriculture in its nationally determined contributions (NDCs), or its official plans to address climate change. Figuring out how to integrate the dairy sector into a plan for a climate-healthy future is important, given that dairy makes up 12 percent of the country’s GDP and is critical to the economy: for every million kg of milk produced in Bangladesh, 350 jobs are created (in the European Union that number is only 7.6).

CCAC’s research found that in Bangladesh, one of the key ways to increase emissions intensity is to improve the quality and availability of feed as well as improving herd management and livestock health. Combining these with other interventions could result in a reduction potential of about 17 percent while increasing milk production by 27 percent in subsistence systems and 24 percent in commercial systems.

As is the case for most emissions intensity interventions, what is a win for the planet is also a win for farmers. Moreover, these interventions can be an important boost for developing country economies.

Ethiopia has set an ambitious plan to become a middle-income country by 2025. Conventional economic growth means that Ethiopia’s greenhouse gas emissions would double by 2030. Like many developing countries, however, Ethiopia is charting a new path that is aligned with a climate healthy future by including agriculture in their nationally determined contributions. A big part of accomplishing them will be reducing emissions intensity.

Cattle being herded in Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Livestock is crucial to Ethiopia’s economic growth, in fact dairy alone contributes 14 to 16 percent of the GDP. Moreover, 11.4 million Ethiopian households produce livestock, most of which are cattle, and almost all of which are smallholder farmers (80 percent of the country relies on agriculture to survive). Despite this, the demand for milk in Ethiopia is still being met through imports: from 2011 to 2013, Ethiopia spent $11 to $15 million in foreign exchange on importing milk products.

With the help of CCAC, Ethiopia is determining the most effective interventions to reduce emissions intensity in the livestock sector while increasing output. As is the case in Bangladesh, the most important of these strategies is improving feed, which farmers typically don’t have enough of and is usually made up of crop residue or crops with poor nutritional quality.

The research CCAC supported found that if the country uses a combination of interventions it can reduce enteric methane emissions by 10 percent while increasing milk production by 170 percent.

Pierre Gerber, Senior Livestock Specialist at the World Bank, says that these two projects are particularly exciting because they’re helping integrate changes across government ministries.

“In the design and the objectives of these projects, the two countries are really embedding mitigation objectives in their livestock development strategies at the level of the ministries of livestock but also involving the Ministry of the Environment,” he said.

He adds that the projects will help each country submit extremely detailed emissions inventories to the UNFCCC that accurately capture the effects of their intervention strategies.

Furthermore, having this detailed information could help countries access climate finance, with some private sector investors potentially offering compensation for reduced emissions intensity.

The Bio-Carbon Fund managed by the World Bank, for example, is evaluating the possibility to incentivize emissions intensity reductions in the livestock sector, under certain circumstances.

Emissions intensity shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to mitigating the overall emissions of the livestock sector but as a complementary strategy, says Gerber. He says that we shouldn’t lose sight of alternate strategies that can help lower the sector’s overall emissions in the long term, such as increasing the use of plant protein or sequestering carbon through practices like afforestation.

“It can only be an entry point, it can’t be an end point,” adds Reisinger.

As an entry point, however, it’s an important one— and one that can contribute to building a healthy planet without sacrificing the needs of farmers and developing country economies.

“It's a development agenda. It's about putting people’s livelihoods and farmers’ well-being first,” said Katie Ross of the World Resources Institute. “Improving emissions intensity is good from an economic standpoint because farmers get more money and it’s good from a climate standpoint because the techniques reduce methane emissions per unit of output.”