Meat and dairy companies told to set science-based targets on methane emissions

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Richard Drury
© GettyImages/Richard Drury

Related tags methane emissions UN SDGs IMS LEAP COP26

A report from environmental campaigners claims that failure to take action on methane emissions by the world’s biggest meat and dairy companies is fueling the climate crisis.

The study​ from the Changing Markets Foundation has ranked those companies in terms of how they are tackling methane emissions from cattle production.

It identifies two French companies, Groupe Bigard and Lactalis, along with Japanese company, Itoham, as the worst performers.

Even companies that ranked best – Switzerland’s Nestlé, France’s Danone and New Zealand’s Fonterra – were doing too little, said the study.

None of the companies report on their methane emissions or have concrete targets or plans for cutting them. Nestlé’s Net Zero Roadmap​ comes closest; however, reductions are reliant on changes in animal feed which have yet to be shown to work on a commercial scale, said the environmental group.

The report calls for specific regulations requiring companies to set science-based targets to cut their carbon and methane emissions, both by using technical measures and by reducing livestock production.

Nusa Urbancic, campaigns director, Changing Markets Foundation, said: “Meat and dairy corporations have been given a free pass by governments and are doing next to nothing to curb their methane emissions as a result. The annual revenues of the top 20 meat and dairy corporations total more than half a trillion dollars a year – more than the national income of Sweden – yet they are investing a fraction of this wealth in cutting emissions and shifting to a more sustainable business model.”

Meat industry reaction

Reacting to the publication, the International Meat Secretariat (IMS), a nonprofit organization representing the global meat and livestock sectors, said it has a longstanding track record in terms of work to maximize the environmental benefits of livestock production, and to minimize its environmental harm, including the reduction of methane emissions and other GHGs.

“We use a science-based approach to develop internationally relevant guidelines, working together with international organizations, and a broad range of other stakeholders.”

The organization highlighted the work being done to consolidate information and identify opportunities to curb methane emissions ​from agriculture by the Food and Agriculture (FAO) hosted multi-stakeholder initiative: Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance (LEAP).

Countries need to step up methane reduction targets’

Meanwhile, the Changing Markets report also analyzed the methane emissions and mitigation policies of the 18 biggest meat and dairy producing nations.

It found that only New Zealand and Uruguay have targets or plans to cut methane from their livestock sector and even these are weak – only 10% in the case of New Zealand.

As a result, no country has made significant cuts in methane emissions over the last five years, reads the study.

Most nations also lack targets or plans for tackling GHG emissions from agriculture or the wider food system, noted the publication.

Global methane pledge

The UN’s Global Methane Assessmen​t found that a 45% cut in methane by 2030 is needed to keep warming below 1.5C. The Global Methane Pledge ​commits governments to collectively cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030, mainly through technical fixes on energy and waste. It is envisaged that the remaining 15% will be delivered as a by-product of measures to tackle other greenhouse gases which fall outside the scope of the pledge.

The UN estimates that behavioral changes such as shifting diets or tackling food waste could deliver up to 44% of the annual emissions reductions possible between now and 2030 while technical innovations such as animal feed supplements could deliver up to 17%.

Professor Robert Howarth, earth systems scientist at Cornell University in the US. said:

The Global Methane Pledge is a step in the right direction but falls short on ambition. The UN’s Methane Assessment established that we could achieve a 45% cut in emissions in a cost-effective way, so why stop at two thirds of the way? Serious action to support a shift to healthier diets with less and better meat and dairy is an important policy in the toolbox of measures that governments must consider to avoid catastrophic climate change."

Weighing in on efforts such as the Global Methane Pledge, which it said are welcome, the IMS stressed that it is important to also consider those initiatives in the larger context.

“Livestock systems are unquestionably amongst the most diverse production systems in agriculture. Climate change mitigation [and adaptation] is an important goal, but only part of a much more complex problem when we consider the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“A holistic approach is necessary. The IMS is fully committed to the UN SDGs. We facilitate the sharing of best practices in livestock sectors across the world. This means continuous improvement, with a solid basis in science, not only to reduce harmful environmental impacts and limiting greenhouse gas emissions, but also to enhance beneficial impacts, such as preserving livelihoods, capturing carbon in pastures, increasing biodiversity linked with livestock and livestock feed production, ensuring animal health and welfare, and preserving valued landscapes.”

COP26 review 

The IMS is hosting, in collaboration with the International Dairy Federation (IDF) and LEAP, a session at COP26: Accelerating climate action in the livestock sector: opportunities across different systems.

“The goal is to mainstream solutions to climate change, focusing on practical outcomes relevant for different production systems around the world, including technical guidance to assess methane emissions.”

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