June 10, 2022 – A draft proposal in New Zealand aims to address methane emissions linked to global warming, one cow and sheep burp at a time. If the plan is adopted, the nation would become the first to charge farmers for the methane emissions emanating from their livestock.
"There is no question that we need to cut the amount of methane we are putting into the atmosphere, and an effective emissions pricing system for agriculture will play a key part in how we achieve that," New Zealand's Climate Change Minister James Shaw explained to BBC News.
New Zealand’s resolution is set against a backdrop of escalating global concern over methane emission and growing criticism over the country’s past inaction to address the agricultural sector’s hand in global warming.
Cow Burp Science Explained
While the docile animals don't seem like a global threat, they're prolific when it comes to their methane emissions.
Cows and sheep belong to a class of mammals known as ruminants because they have stomachs that are separated into compartments, the largest of which is the rumen. The rumen chamber is populated by a community of microbes that help break down fibrous plant cellulose the animals are unable to digest.
This process, known as enteric fermentation, releases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere every time one the beasts burps – which is pretty often.
Globally, bovine burps are responsible for roughly 10% of greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activity, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Every one of the world’s 1.4 billion cows burps up to 500 liters of methane daily. In Australia, farm animals are responsible for up to half of the country’s methane emissions.
Climate scientists are interested in containing carbon dioxide and methane, the two most common greenhouse gases. Methane is 80 times more potent at global warming than carbon dioxide, with atmospheric methane proliferating faster than ever, the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claims.
An Animal Gas Tax
New Zealand's proposal would begin taxing livestock belches in 2025 while also providing incentives to reduce emissions by feeding farm animals a special diet and planting trees to offset their pollution. The tax revenue it raises would be plowed back into research and farm support services.
Other strategies to clear the air include face masks for cows that trap and turn methane into water and carbon dioxide, a method that reduces emissions by more than 50% according to Zelp, the company that invented the contraption. Some farmers are already experimenting with feed made from seaweed. And scientists are tinkering with cow genetics to increase their digestive efficiency.
The proposal could potentially be the biggest regulatory disruption to farming since the removal of agricultural subsidies in the 1980s, Susan Kilsby, an agricultural economist at ANZ Bank, told Reuters.
A final decision on the plan is expected by the end of the year, she said.