Land Use and Methane

As the COP negotiations increasingly look to agriculture, forestry, and other land uses as tools to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate, methanogenesis – the biological production of methane by single-celled organisms – must be taken into account. This methane production is very similar to fermentation, the process used to produce alcohol. In fermentation, when yeast is denied access to oxygen, the yeast produces alcohol as a waste product. Humans do this too when exercising, producing lactic acid (this is why your muscles burn when you are out of breath). In methanogenesis, when a certain type of bacteria is denied access to oxygen, the bacteria will produce methane as a waste product.

 

This is a serious concern to land use managers. Rice production is one of the largest human sources of methane because of the low-oxygen content of the water in submerged rice paddies. To make matters worse, as the climate warms the bacteria in rice paddies produce higher levels of methane.

Another land use concern is the construction of hydroelectric dams. Hydroelectric dams are often viewed as a viable renewable energy alternative to fossil fuels, but because of the low-oxygen content of the water of the reservoir, organic material that gets caught at the dam decomposes to produce methane. Some even argue that hydroelectric dams are a net cause, not a solution to, climate change.

Deputy Head of The University of Queensland's Australian Centre for Ecogenomics Professor Gene Tyson

Deputy Head of The University of Queensland’s Australian Centre for Ecogenomics Professor Gene Tyson

On top of all this, a recent study discovered a new methane-producing group of organisms that live in wetlands, lake and river estuary sediments, mud volcanoes, and deep-sea vents. This discovery revealed that humans still have much to learn about the carbon cycle. And this is not to mention all of the other sources of methane, both human (e.g. energy and waste production, livestock) and natural (e.g. wetlands, oceans, termites).

 

Fortunately, there are ways to manage these concerns. Rice paddies can be drained mid-season to kill off the methane-producers, and alternative fertilizers have been shown to reduce methane emissions. Hydroelectric dams can be managed to reduce organic matter in reservoirs, both by harvesting trees and other plant matter before the reservoir is flooded and by capturing organic matter farther upstream before it reaches the reservoir. Finally, researchers have also discovered methane-consuming bacteria that could play an important role in the reduction of methane emissions. Land use managers must consider these methane-control techniques as we move to address climate change.

 


Fracking: COP21 as “the scoreboard, not the game”

Panel for Side Event on Keeping Fossil Fuels in the Ground: the International Movement to Ban Fracking

Panel for Today’s Side Event on Keeping Fossil Fuels in the Ground: the International Movement to Ban Fracking

“If you’re looking for good way to heat up the earth fast, poke holes in the earth and let methane pour out.” This is how Bill McKibben of 350.org described hydraulic fracturing (fracking) at today’s side event on the international movement to ban fracking. Sandra Steingraber of EcoWatch pointed out how both methane and CO2 have to be considered in the fight against climate change. The side event’s moderator asked McKibben how to use what is going on at COP21 to put pressure on the United States and other countries to get a better outcome on fracking. McKibben said that COP21 is “the scoreboard, not the game. The main thing to do is come out of here ready to take on the next set of fights and next set of activism.”

In September, the Center for Biological Diversity released a report on fracking in the United States entitled “Grounded: The President’s Power to Fight Climate Change, Protect Public Lands by Keeping Publicly Owned Fossil Fuels in the Ground.” The report addresses the president’s authority to stop new leasing of federally managed and publicly owned fossil fuels from extraction, start withdrawing lands and oceans from availability, and keep carbon reserves in the ground. Panelists focused on fracking in California, mentioning the Los Angeles Times article on California farmers using water recycled from oil fields to irrigate crops. The article highlights concerns about toxins in the recycled water contaminating crops. At the conclusion of the side event, panelists urged participants to reach out to elected officials regarding the impact of fracking on climate, water, air, food, and public health.


A Call for Deforestation-Free Agriculture

What do cattle, soy, and palm oil have in common? These are all products associated with commodity-linked deforestation. Between 2000 and 2012, expansion of commercial agriculture and timber plantations caused the destruction of more than 50 million hectares of tropical forests. The UNFCCC website states: “Roughly a third of recent tropical deforestation and associated carbon emissions (3.9 Mha and 1.7 GtCO2) can be attributed to the production of beef, soy, palm oil and timber alone.”

Forests play an important role in climate change adaptation and mitigation. However, agricultural expansion is a major driver of deforestation and forest degradation. In today’s side event on deforestation-free agriculture, panelists discussed the importance of halting deforestation and reducing emissions in commodity supply chains. A panelist from the Rainforest Alliance pointed out the lack of attention to sustainable, deforestation-free sourcing: “Currently, there is no existing large-scale framework to verify that products, processes, or producers do not contribute to the loss of natural forest.” Today’s panel highlighted several important considerations in developing and implementing such a system.

One of the main themes from today’s event focused on traceability. A 2015 report co-authored by a panelist from SNV points to the importance of traceability in halting supply chains that cause deforestation. Voluntary certifications are one way to communicate to consumers how sustainable products are. Currently, many existing certification schemes currently lack traceability systems to identify deforestation-free supply chains. A transparent traceability system is essential to make it clear where end-products originate from.

Source: NWF

Source: NWF

A second theme focused on engaging producers. The Rainforest Alliance’s 2015 position paper on this issue discusses the important of engaging producers as allies. Speakers highlighted the importance of working with front-runner companies to eliminate deforestation from commodity trade. Nathalie Walker from the National Wildlife Federation described a successful example of engaging producers and converting sustainable pledges into action. A National Wildlife Federation study published in Science explained how Brazil’s soy moratorium, a voluntary pledge from large soy companies not to clear Amazon forest for soy, halted deforestation more effectively than government policy alone. The lead author explained: “Prior to the Soy Moratorium, about 30% of soy planted in the Amazon was directly replacing forests, but under the current protections, it has fallen to less than 1%.”

A third theme centered on increasing public and private sector collaboration. Speakers highlighted the critical importance of governments having a vision for green growth and supporting sustainable production through policies and plans, and through establishing or expanding incentives. Similarly, companies should encourage deforestation-free initiatives, voluntary standards, and certification. The issues of traceability, engaging producers, and increasing public-private sector collaboration are all important components of supporting the transition to deforestation-free agriculture. Companies and national governments are increasingly taking a step in the right direction and making public commitments to deforestation-free products.


Feet on the Ground: Low-Carbon Travel to Paris

“A challenge that remains is to motivate the many participants of conferences and meetings to reduce their own carbon footprint, especially from travel.”

So reads the UNFCCC secretariat’s sustainability efforts web page. Some individuals took this challenge into their own hands (or rather, feet) and are pursuing unconventional travel routes to Paris.

First, there are the walkers. Yeb Saño, former Philippine Climate Change Commissioner, falls into this category. Saño is weeks into his 60-day, 930-mile expedition on foot, from Rome to Paris. Saño leads a group known as The People’s Pilgrimage, a group of multi-faith individuals walking to COP21, “carrying with them the hopes and prayers of millions for a better future, safe from climate change.”

Next, we have the runners and cyclists. A recent Huffington Post article highlighted Pole to Paris, a group running and cycling from the Arctic to COP21. Young scientists travel this route as a public awareness campaign for COP21, seeking to “bridge the gap between science and society.”

Finally, more cyclists! Climate Journey is “a storytelling expedition from New England to Paris for COP21.” The two cyclists, who will be youth delegates at COP21, are gathering local stories about climate change en route. Bike for a Future is another public awareness campaign bicycle ride from Vietnam to France.

Meanwhile, 95 percent of the UNFCCC secretariat’s total carbon footprint comes from air travel. At COP20, the secretariat purchased Certified Emission Reductions (CERs) to offset greenhouse gas emissions from UNFCCC staff and funded participants travel to Lima. COP21’s web page says the Conference’s €187 million budget will include funding for a “limited and offset carbon footprint.” Walkers, runners, and cyclists alike have already embarked on low-carbon voyages to Paris, catalyzing momentum for the upcoming climate change negotiations.

 


Decoupling the economic engine from GHGs

At last week’s Climate Week NYC, the Heinrich Bolls Foundation released a study that found that countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have already decreased their GHG emissions without reducing their economic growth.  In other words, they decouplinghave “decoupled” economic growth from emissions.  A few interesting facts include:

1. From 2004 to 2014, OECD economies grew an overall 16% while fossil fuel consumption dropped 6% and GHG emissions, 6.4%.

2. Since 2004, Germany’s GDP has grown 13% and its emissions have dropped 11%.

3. From 2004-07, the US GDP grew 17% while emissions related to fossil fuel combustion dropped 7.4%.

The study offers four factors to account for this decoupling: 1) using low-carbon energy instead of fossil fuels (driven by a large and fast drop in the former’s costs); 2) increasing efficiency in energy generation; 3) also increasing energy efficiency by consumers; and 4) transitioning from energy-intensive manufacturing to less energy-intensive service work.

Fear of dampening economic growth has hampered more than one politician from supporting climate change regulations.  But given that this study is line with the EIA’s conclusion that 2014 saw GHGs drop while GDP increased, blogged about earlier this year, predictions that decarbonizing an economy can create jobs and fuel economic growth are looking very credible.