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Methane emissions are driving climate change. Here’s how to reduce them

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If you’ve ever ventured into a cow pasture, chances are you’ve noticed an odour or two. What you’re likely smelling is methane and it’s more than just unpleasant. It’s a potent greenhouse gas. Molecule for molecule, methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide.

A recent assessment from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition found that cutting farming-related methane emissions would be key in the battle against climate change. But how can the world do that? Read on for the answers.

Where does methane come from?

Agriculture is the predominant source.

Livestock emissions – from manure and gastroenteric releases – account for roughly 32 per cent of human-caused methane emissions. Population growth, economic development and urban migration have stimulated unprecedented demand for animal protein and with the global population approaching 10 billion, this hunger is expected to increase by up to 70 per cent by 2050

Agricultural methane doesn’t only come from animals, though. Paddy rice cultivation – in which flooded fields prevent oxygen from penetrating the soil, creating ideal conditions for methane-emitting bacteria – accounts for another 8 per cent of human-linked emissions.

What’s the big deal about methane?

Methane is the primary contributor to the formation of ground-level ozone, a hazardous air pollutant and greenhouse gas, exposure to which causes 1 million premature deaths every year. Methane is also a powerful greenhouse gas. Over a 20-year period, it is 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide.

Methane has accounted for roughly 30 per cent of global warming since pre-industrial times and is proliferating faster than at any other time since record keeping began in the 1980s. In fact, according to data from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, even as carbon dioxideemissions decelerated during the pandemic-related lockdowns of 2020, atmospheric methane shot up.

How can we reduce methane emissions?

UNEP Food Systems and Agriculture Advisor James Lomax says the world needs to begin by “rethinking our approaches to agricultural cultivation and livestock production.” That includes leveraging new technology, shifting towards plant-rich diets and embracing alternative sources of protein. Lomax says that will be key if humanity is to slash greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming to 1.5°C, a target of the Paris climate change agreement.

Can farmers help in the campaign to cut methane emissions?

Yes. They can provide animals with more nutritious feed so that they are larger, healthier and more productive, effectively producing more with less. Scientists are also experimenting with alternative types of feed to reduce the methane produced by cows and looking at ways to manage manure more efficiently by covering it, composting it, or using it to produce biogas.

When it comes to staple crops like paddy rice, experts recommend alternate wetting and drying approaches that could halve emissions. Rather than allowing the continuous flooding of fields, paddies could be irrigated and drained two to three times throughout the growing season, limiting methane production without impacting yield. That process would also require one-third less water, making it more economical.

Will reducing methane really help counter climate change?

Yes. Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years. This means that even if emissions were immediately and dramatically reduced it would not have an effect on the climate until later in the century. But it takes only about a decade for methane to break down. So, reducing methane emissions now would have an impact in the near term and is critical for helping keep the world on a path to 1.5°C.

How much methane can we really cut?

Human-caused methane emissions could be reduced by as much as 45 per cent within the decade. This would avert nearly 0.3°C of global warming by 2045, helping to limit global temperature rise to 1.5˚C and putting the planet on track to achieve the Paris Agreement targets. Every year, the subsequent reduction in ground-level ozone would also prevent 260,000 premature deaths, 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits, 73 billion hours of lost labour from extreme heat and 25 million tonnes of crop losses.

What is the United Nations doing to help limit methane emissions?

A lot. UN Secretary-General António Guterres will convene the UN Food Systems Summit in September 2021, which aims to help make farming and food production more environmentally friendly.

In the meantime, the UN’s Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture initiative is supporting the transformation of agricultural and food systems, focusing on how to maintain productivity amid a changing climate. Representatives are also working to mainstream agriculture into the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and will hold discussions at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), later this year.

UN Environment

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Most agricultural funding distorts prices, harms environment

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Around 87% of the $540 billion in total annual government support given worldwide to agricultural producers includes measures that are price distorting and that can be harmful to nature and health.  

That is the main finding of a new UN report calling for repurposing these incentives to achieve more of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and realize the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration

The report, A multi-billion-dollar opportunity: Repurposing agricultural support to transform food systems, was launched on Tuesday by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). 

Switch investments 

Global support to producers in the form of subsidies and other incentives, makes up 15 per cent of total agricultural production value. By 2030, this is projected to more than triple, to $1.759 trillion. The OECD defines agricultural support, as the annual monetary value of gross transfers to agriculture, from consumers and taxpayers, arising from government policies. 

Current support mostly consists of price incentives, such as import tariffs and export subsidies, as well as fiscal subsidies which are tied to the production of a specific commodity or input. 

The report says these are inefficient, distort food prices, hurt people’s health, degrade the environment, and are often inequitable, putting big agri-business ahead of smallholder farmers, many whom are women. 

Last year, up to 811 million people worldwide faced chronic hunger and nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have year-round access to adequate food. In 2019, around three billion people, in every region of the world, could not afford a healthy diet. 

Change, don’t eliminate 

The reports note that, even though most agricultural support today has negative effects, around $110 billion supports infrastructure, research and development, and benefits the general food and agriculture sector.  

It argues that changing agricultural producer support, rather than eliminating it, will help end poverty, eradicate hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition, promote sustainable agriculture, foster sustainable consumption and production, mitigate the climate crisis, restore nature, limit pollution, and reduce inequalities. 

Wake-up call 

The Director-General of FAO, Qu Dongyu, said the report “is a wake-up call for governments around the world to rethink agricultural support schemes to make them fit for purpose to transform our agri-food systems and contribute to the Four Betters: Better nutrition, better production, better environment and a better life.” 

Agriculture is one of the main contributors to climate change. At the same time, farmers are particularly vulnerable to impacts of the climate crisis, such as extreme heat, rising sea levels, drought, floods, and locust attacks. 

According to the report, “continuing with support-as-usual will worsen the triple planetary crisis and ultimately harm human well-being.” 

Meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement requires shifting support especially in high-income countries for an outsized meat and dairy industry, which accounts for 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In lower-income countries, governments should consider repurposing their support for toxic pesticides and fertilizers or the growth of monocultures. 

For the Executive Director of UNEP, Inger Andersen, “governments have an opportunity now to transform agriculture into a major driver of human well-being, and into a solution for the imminent threats of climate change, nature loss, and pollution.” 

From India to the UK 

The report shares several case studies, such as the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, that adopted a policy of Zero Budget Natural Farming; or the Single Payment Scheme, in the United Kingdom, that removed subsidies in agreement with the National Farmers Union (NFU).  

In the European Union, crop diversification has been incentivized through reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and in Senegal a programme called PRACAS incentivizes farmers to cultivate more diverse crops. 

UNDP Administrator, Achim Steiner, believes repurposing agricultural support “can improve both productivity and environmental outcomes.” For him, this change “will also boost the livelihoods of the 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide, many of them women, by ensuring a more level playing field.” 

The report is being launched ahead of the 2021 Food Systems Summit convened by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, due to take place on 23rd September in New York.  

The Summit will launch bold new actions to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each of which relies to some degree on healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems. 

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Environment

Climate Change Could Force 216M People to Migrate Within Their Own Countries by 2050

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The World Bank’s updated Groundswell report released today finds that climate change, an increasingly potent driver of migration, could force 216 million people across six world regions to move within their countries by 2050. Hotspots of internal climate migration could emerge as early as 2030 and continue to spread and intensify by 2050. The report also finds that immediate and concerted action to reduce global emissions, and support green, inclusive, and resilient development, could reduce the scale of climate migration by as much as 80 percent.

Climate change is a powerful driver of internal migration because of its impacts on people’s livelihoods and loss of livability in highly exposed locations. By 2050, Sub-Saharan Africa could see as many as 86 million internal climate migrants; East Asia and the Pacific, 49 million; South Asia, 40 million; North Africa, 19 million; Latin America, 17 million; and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 5 million.

“The Groundswell report is a stark reminder of the human toll of climate change, particularly on the world’s poorest—those who are contributing the least to its causes. It also clearly lays out a path for countries to address some of the key factors that are causing climate-driven migration,” said Juergen Voegele, Vice President of Sustainable Development, World Bank. “All these issues are fundamentally connected which is why our support to countries is positioned to deliver on climate and development objectives together while building a more sustainable, safe and resilient future.”   

The updated report includes projections and analysis for three regions: East Asia and the Pacific, North Africa, and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It builds on the novel and pioneering modeling approach of the previous World Bank Groundswell report from 2018, which covered Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.

By deploying a scenario-based approach, the report explores potential future outcomes, which can help decision-makers plan ahead. The approach allows for the identification of internal climate in- and out- migration hotspots, namely the areas from which people are expected to move due to increasing water scarcity, declining crop productivity, and sea-level rise, and urban and rural areas with better conditions to build new livelihoods.

The report provides a series of policy recommendations that can help slow the factors driving climate migration and prepare for expected migration flows, including:

  • Reducing global emissions and making every effort to meet the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement.
  • Embedding internal climate migration in far-sighted green, resilient, and inclusive development planning.
  • Preparing for each phase of migration, so that internal climate migration as an adaptation strategy can result in positive development outcomes.
  • Investing in better understanding of the drivers of internal climate migration to inform well-targeted policies.

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Environment

The Real Cost of Speeding on People and the Environment

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Reducing road speeds represent a major yet under-appreciated opportunity not only to improve road safety and save lives but also promote sustainable mobility, and benefits such as increased efficiency and inclusion, according to a new publication by the World Bank’s Global Road Safety Facility (GRSF).

The report, titled “Road Crash Trauma, Climate Change, Pollution and the Total Costs of Speed: Six graphs that tell the story,” sheds light on common misunderstanding of the impacts of speed on road safety, congestion, pollution, and the cost of travel.

Well-established evidence in the note makes a stronger case for lowering speed to be one of the most effective ways to enhance road safety. For example, a one percent increase in speed results in a 3.5 to 4-percent increase in deaths.

It finds that applying lower speed limits might make more economic sense. Analyses of higher speeds often focus only on the benefits of saving travel time and omit critical economic costs in the form of crashes, emissions, fuel, and vehicle maintenance. Meanwhile, several studies show that in high-income countries, travel speeds which are economically optimal are lower than expected and typically lower than the posted speed limits.

We understand that there is a strong need for evidence-based and targeted interventions to improve road safety in Vietnam,” said Rahul Kitchlu, the World Bank Acting Country Director for Vietnam. “We hope that policy makers can leverage this publication to develop measures that work, especially as the country is preparing an updated version of the National Road Safety Strategy and Action Plan.”

The note argues that rather than relying on enforcement alone, a combination of vehicle policies, road design, and engineering would allow for a stronger, more sustainable, and often more politically viable strategy for speed management.

The note also highlights other benefits fundamental to sustainable mobility associated with lower speeds. They include reduced climate change impacts of road transport, increased efficiency (fuel and vehicle maintenance), improved inclusion, and walkability.

Despite extensive efforts, the number of road crashes in Vietnam remain high. In 2018, the National Traffic Safety Committee of Vietnam reported 18,700 traffic crashes killing 8,200 and injuring another 14,800 people. This averages to around 22 road traffic fatalities and 41 road traffic injuries per day. 82% of those killed or injured on the roads fall into the economically productive age groups between 15 and 64 years.

Editor’s Note:

The Global Road Safety Facility (GRSF), hosted by the World Bank, provides funding, knowledge, and technical assistance to build and scale up knowledge, technological, managerial, and delivery capacities for road safety of low- and middle-income countries. GRSF has received total donor pledges of $74 million, in addition to support from the World Bank in its hosting capacity. GRSF’s road safety work has expanded to 81 countries improving road safety outcomes through technical assistance, training and capacity building, as well as grant-funded activities. GRSF has received numerous prestigious international awards and recognitions for its work, including, most recently, three 2020 Prince Michael Awards for its effective delivery of global road safety.

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