Fake it ‘til you make it: faux meat and climate change

no-meat-pictureIf it tastes like a burger, and bleeds like a burger, it must be . . . plant-based protein?

At least that’s the outcome fake-meat innovators like Impossible Burger are striving for: a meatless burger that captures the textures and flavors of meat to whet the appetite of even the staunchest carnivores.

In fact, the fake meat industry’s approach might be working. Whether for health, environmental, or ethical reasons, more people are tossing veggie burgers on the grill. Food giants like Tyson are taking notice: last year, Tyson bought a 5% stake in Beyond Meat. Google’s Eric Schmidt even identified plant-based proteins as the number one “game-changing” trend of the future.

The growth of the fake meat industry is good news for climate change. After all, the world’s appetite for meat drives 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions. According to a U.N. report, factory-farmed animals contribute more to climate change than all the world’s cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships combined. Having each American replace chicken with plant-based foods at just one meal per week is equivalent to taking more than half a million cars off U.S. roads.

Further, feeding huge numbers of confined animals uses more food than it produces. And while some cultures may be willing to eat insects to cut the impact of livestock on our planet, this option does not seem compatible with–or palatable to–the tastes of Western nations.

The incredible impact of factory farming adds up when you take a hard look at demand. For example, Americans eat three times the recommended level of meat. Given meat’s impact on climate, eating “like an American” is beyond sustainable. “Even in doing everything we can to reduce the emissions associated with meat production, rising demand means livestock emissions would take us beyond the global objective of 2ºC,” said Rob Bailey, a research director at the think tank Chatham House. “Therefore, dietary change is a precondition for avoiding catastrophic climate change.”

Even the UN Climate Change Conferences recognize the importance of dietary change. In addition to focusing on low-carbon and free range food, COP 23 plans to serve a higher share of vegetarian and vegan food than at past sessions.

In changing people’s diets, using “nanny statism“ to tax dairy and meat products–while theoretically effective–may rub Western nations the wrong way. Given the personal choice and cultural intricacies involved in making dinner, “it is not the place of governments or civil society to intrude into people’s lives and tell them what to eat.”

But the fake meat industry might just bring home the bacon. With more and more palatable options, and the withering taboo of veggie burgers for “radical vegetarians,” free market innovation is helping carnivore nations put more plant-based foods on the table. If the fake meat industry puts out a good spread, it could spark a marked drop in greenhouse gas emissions and help feed the world along the way.

 


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.

 


Methane, the other GHG

partner-challenge-emissionsMethane (CH4), the main component of natural gas, is the second most prevalent GHG emitted globally. It has a higher global warming potency but shorter shelf life: methane is more than 80 times more warming than carbon dioxide over 20 years.  While it usually gets second billing to CO2’s long term impacts and prevalence in the fossil fuel-based economy, capturing methane emissions can spur shorter term emissions reductions that those typically pledged in the Paris Agreement over the 2025, 2030, and 2050 timelines.

President Obama has set a goal for reducing US methane emissions and so EPA has made it, carbon emissions, and HFCs the focus of its 2016 agenda. Fugitive emissions from aging oil and gas infrastructure from a small number of oil and gas facilities in the US produce most of the methane leaks. Leftover fluids from hydraulic fracturing have some of the highest levels of methane.

The EPA expects a rule on methane leaks from new oil and gas sites to be finalized this spring. The Agency is also working on a methane rule for existing wells (that will not be finalized during the Obama Administration), starting with an Information Collection Request that requires drillers to provide information on methane leaks to the EPA. Said McCarthy, “That is a very large signal about our commitment to move toward regulating the existing sources, in the oil and gas sector, of methane.”

Recently more than 40 US energy companies agreed to voluntarily reduce their methane emissions. The EPA announced the launch of  its Natural Gas STAR Methane Challenge Program. Its mission:  to provide “a platform for Partners to showcase their efforts to reduce methane emissions, improve air quality, and capture and monetize this valuable energy resource.Duke Energy and National Grid signed on to the program.” The program’s March 2016 launch was in conjunction with 41 corporate partners, including Duke Energy, Excel Energy, and National Grid.

Methane is also the focus of current Canada-US bilateral action.  President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau agreed last month to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 45% below 2012 levels by the year 2025.