Step Aside Agribusiness, It’s Time for Real Solutions to the Climate Crisis. Sept 24 2019. Big food and agribusiness companies are desperate to portray themselves as part of the solution to the climate crisis. But there is no way to reconcile what’s needed to heal our planet with their unflinching commitment to growth. By GRAIN. New research is showing that the industry has vastly underestimated its own emissions. The most recent IPCC report pointed to nitrogen fertilizers as one of the most dangerous and underestimated contributors to the climate crisis.
Cornell researchers find emissions of methane from the industrial sector have been vastly underestimated, Science Daily, 2019
Emissions of methane from the industrial sector have been vastly underestimated, researchers from Cornell University and Environmental Defense Fund have found.
Using a Google Street View car equipped with a high-precision methane sensor, the researchers discovered that methane emissions from ammonia fertilizer plants were 100 times higher than the fertilizer industry’s self-reported estimate. They also were substantially higher than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate for all industrial processes in the United States.
“We took one small industry that most people have never heard of and found that its methane emissions were three times higher than the EPA assumed was emitted by all industrial production in the United States,” said John Albertson, co-author and professor of civil and environmental engineering. “It shows us that there’s a huge gap between a priori estimates and real-world measurements.”
The researchers’ findings are reported in “Estimation of Methane Emissions From the U.S. Ammonia Fertilizer Industry Using a Mobile Sensing Approach,” published in Elementa.
The use of natural gas has grown in recent years, bolstered by improved efficiency in shale gas extraction and the perception that natural gas is a less dirty fossil fuel.
“But natural gas is largely methane, which molecule-per-molecule has a stronger global warming potential than carbon dioxide,” Albertson said. “The presence of substantial emissions or leaks anywhere along the supply chain could make natural gas a more significant contributor to climate change than previously thought.”
To evaluate methane emissions from downstream industrial sources, the researchers focused on the fertilizer industry, which uses natural gas both as the fuel and one of the main ingredients for ammonia and urea products. Ammonia fertilizer is produced at only a couple dozen plants in the U.S.; factories are often located near public roadways, where emissions carried downwind can be detected — in this case by mobile sensors.
For this study, the Google Street View vehicle traveled public roads near six representative fertilizer plants in the country’s midsection to quantify “fugitive methane emissions” — defined as inadvertent losses of methane to the atmosphere, likely due to incomplete chemical reactions during fertilizer production, incomplete fuel combustion or leaks.
The team discovered that, on average, 0.34 percent of the gas used in the plants is emitted to the atmosphere. Scaling this emission rate from the six plants to the entire industry suggests total annual methane emissions of 28 gigagrams — 100 times higher than the fertilizer industry’s self-reported estimate of 0.2 gigagrams per year.
In addition, this figure far exceeds the EPA’s estimate that all industrial processes in the United States produce only 8 gigagrams of methane emissions per year.
“Even though a small percentage is being leaked, the fact that methane is such a powerful greenhouse gas makes the small leaks very important,” said Joseph Rudek, co-author and lead senior scientist at Environmental Defense Fund. “In a 20-year timeframe, methane’s global warming potential is 84 times that of carbon dioxide.”
Journal Reference: Xiaochi Zhou, Fletcher H. Passow, Joseph Rudek, Joseph C. Von Fisher, Steven P. Hamburg, John D. Albertson. Estimation of methane emissions from the U.S. ammonia fertilizer industry using a mobile sensing approach. Elem Sci Anth, 2019; 7 (1): 19 DOI: 10.1525/elementa.358
Cornell University. “Fertilizer plants emit 100 times more methane than reported.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 June 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/06/190606183254.htm>
The big fertilizer, meat and dairy companies are in trouble. These companies, such as Tyson, Nestlé and Cargill, have emissions levels that approximate their counterparts in the fossil fuel industry. The top 20 meat and dairy companies emit more greenhouse gases than Germany, Europe’s biggest climate polluter. But none of these companies have credible action plans to reduce their emissions and only 4 of the top 35 companies are even reporting their emissions!
The industrial food system only exists today because of the support it gets from governments which march in lockstep with corporate lobbyists. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
This week’s UN Climate Action Summit will be tricky for agribusiness CEOs. With forest fires raging in the Amazon, a damning new report about the food system by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and millions of young people out in streets clamoring to shut down fossil fuels and factory farming, it will be hard for the world’s largest food and agribusiness companies to get away with another round of voluntary pledges to reduce their gigantic emissions.
At the last UN summit on climate, held five years ago in New York, agribusiness dazzled everyone with two initiatives on deforestation and agriculture, both of which are now in shambles.
Their initiative on deforestation, a New York Declaration on Forests, championed by the world’s largest buyer of palm oil, Unilever, was supposed to put a major dent in tropical deforestation. Instead, rates of tree cover loss have soared, the Amazon is in flames, and those trying to defend forests from agribusiness companies are being killed in record numbers. Now we are learning that the Brazilian Cerrado, a biodiversity hot spot on par with the Amazon and one of the main frontiers for agribusiness expansion, is also burning at a record rate. Agribusiness is responsible, but so are the big global financial firms that having been buying up vast swaths of Cerrado lands and converting them to mega-farms, such as the Swedish national pension fund, Blackstone and the Harvard University endowment.
The top 20 meat and dairy companies emit more greenhouse gases than Germany, Europe’s biggest climate polluter.
The other initiative at the last summit, a Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, was the handiwork of Yara, the world’s top nitrogen fertiliser producer and one of the planet’s worst emitters of greenhouse gases. It was the fertiliser industry’s PR response to the growing movement for a real climate solution based on fertiliser-free agroecological farming. The trick worked, for a while. Global production of nitrogen fertiliser rose steadily over the next few years. But the most recent IPCC report pointed to nitrogen fertilisers as one of the most dangerous and underestimated contributors to the climate crisis, and new research is showing that the industry has vastly underestimated its own emissions.
Right now, climate activists are mobilizing in Germany for the first mass climate action against Yara and the fertilizer industry. They are targeting Yara because of its multi-million euro lobbying efforts to green-wash industrial agriculture, which they say is one of the main drivers of the climate breakdown.
The big meat and dairy companies are also in trouble. These companies, such as Tyson, Nestlé and Cargill, have emissions levels that approximate their counterparts in the fossil fuel industry. The top 20 meat and dairy companies emit more greenhouse gases than Germany, Europe’s biggest climate polluter. But none of these companies have credible action plans to reduce their emissions and only 4 of the top 35 companies are even reporting their emissions! Instead of taking meaningful action to cut back on production, several companies have been making a lot of noise about their minor investments in plant-based alternatives. People are not being fooled. On the eve of last week’s global climate strike, more than 200 representatives of Indigenous Peoples, workers, academia, environmental and human rights groups adopted a landmark declaration that singled out the “fossil fuel industry and large-scale agribusiness” for “being at the core of the destruction of our climate”.
Big food and agribusiness companies are desperate to portray themselves as part of the solution. But there is no way to reconcile what’s needed to heal our planet with their unflinching commitment to growth. We cannot address the climate crisis if these companies are allowed to keep on sourcing, processing and selling ever more agricultural commodities, be it meat, milk, palm oil or soybeans. Their massive supply chains are what drives the food system’s catastrophic emissions—which the IPCC now says stands at up to 37% of global human-made GHG emissions.
Yet, if we look beyond the public relations of Big Food and Ag we will see that there are plenty of real solutions that can feed the planet perfectly well. All kinds of alternatives are flourishing, especially in the global South, where small farmers and local food systems still supply up to 80% of the food people eat. The industrial food system only exists today because of the support it gets from governments which march in lockstep with corporate lobbyists. Public subsidies, trade deals, tax breaks and corporate-friendly regulations are all designed to prop up the big food and agribusiness companies—and facilitate the growing criminalization of affected communities, land defenders and seed savers resisting these corporations on the ground. We urgently need to send agribusiness out of the room and demand that governments shift support to small food producers and local markets which would actually save us from planetary collapse.
GRAIN is a small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systemsOur work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. Feel free to republish and share widely.