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Executive Director's Message
I have written many times in Connect about various aspects of the greenhouse gas balance of cattle production systems. There are lots of different angles to consider under this heading – think of land conversion, whether that be deforestation or converting natural grasslands to crops; enteric emissions and the various means by which we can manage those; or carbon sequestration in soils and how we can influence that through better management.
Beyond those concrete things that take place on farms and ranches and are within producers' power to influence, there are other considerations, such as how we calculate the impact of any concrete activity into a " Carbon equivalent" or proxy of its impact. It is, to be frank, a complex world in which I do not claim expertise, with a lexicon all its own and a huge range of companies and institutions involved in calculating the impact of all that humans do on the climate.
For those of you who join our board calls, you will have heard us talking about a GHG project we have launched. You may be wondering what that is about and how it relates to your organisation, so this edition of Connect is to look at it and emphasise the importance we attach to involving our members in this project.
I don't know many producers who are deeply engrossed in the GHG world, though plenty of producers are worried about climate change and would like to do their part to mitigate and certainly to adapt to it. On the other hand I do know a lot of companies further along the beef chain, as well as countries, who have made commitments to reducing their Carbon footprint through mechanisms including the Science Based Target Initiative (SBTI), Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) and Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and, of course, the Paris agreement..
They need to work with producers to be able to demonstrate that they are meeting their targets. As long as that leads to benefits to the producers involved, there will be willing participants.
Initial estimates of the carbon footprint of livestock were very broad, and it was such global estimates, such as that in Livestock' Long Shadow in 2006 that first brought up the issue of enteric emissions being a significant source of GHGs. Depending upon how involved you have been in discussions about GHG and climate change, you may be very familiar with the Tier concept used by the IPCC for calculation of emissions.
Tier 1 refers to a system using the '"Gain–Loss" method, and emission factors provided by IPCC. Gain–Loss refers to emissions or removals of CO2 from carbon pools. This methodology is very broad, and therefore unlikely to capture improvements made within the beef value chain. Although it talks of 'gain–loss', it does not account for carbon sequestered in grazing land soils (land use change is considered, see example of coefficients here).
Subsequent efforts at national level to quantify the impact of the livestock sector on national inventories vary widely in relation the significance of livestock to the economy, and the systems and environments in which production takes place. National inventories may be calculated using IPCC Tier 2 method, which is similar to Tier 1, but uses specific national emission factors and parameters more appropriate to the forests, climatic regions and land use systems in that country. Thus national level inventories may be calculated using different methods.
Tier 3 methods use data models (e.g.GLEAM ) tailored to national circumstances including LCAs. Of the many livestock LCAs that have been undertaken around the world, few use the same method to reach their conclusions, though FAO’s LEAP initiative has sought to establish standard methodologies. This makes it hard to compare between countries, or indeed to come to a global figure by adding up national figures. Progressing from Tier 1 to Tier 3 should reduce the uncertainty of GHG estimates, but at the cost of increasingly complex measurement processes and analyses.
On–farm tools are a further level of detail, some of which actually estimate the carbon impact of farm management practices while others provide management guidance based on presumed best practice for a given environment and system. Again, there are lots of these tools, developed based on different underlying methodologies and therefore sometimes prone to coming up with conflicting conclusions using the same data.
By now I think you will appreciate that it's difficult to come to a generalised understanding of what's what – it is very difficult for companies sourcing cattle / beef all around the world to represent their carbon footprint consistently. The intention of our GHG project is to build on the large volume of existing work done on emissions, sequestration and accounting and to unite and align on–farm GHG assessment tools to a consistent methodology that reflects the latest science, resolves areas of ambiguity and considers how the latest science should be incorporated in line with best practice.
The first phase in the project has already begun, and is a mapping exercise to show all of the different actors already working in this space, highlight gaps and how they should be filled and potential routes to getting greater alignment between tools and methodologies.
This is being undertaken by Viresco Solutions, and involves several well respected scientists . They will be presenting the results of phase 1 at our meetings in Chicago in May.
Phase 2 is going to have to be much larger and involve our membership fully in order to be able to meet the needs of all of your organisations. Given the number of organisations that have set targets, I believe that the product of this work will also be of interest to many companies beyond GRSB and that this project could bring increasing interest from other organisations that are not necessarily mainstream "beef" companies, but still need this type of work to be able to report against targets. Certainly leather companies could well be interested, as could retailers for whom beef is simply one product amongst the thousands they sell.
While such companies may not have the human resources to participate fully in GRSB, it is certainly possible that they would be willing to contribute to the work financially if they can use it later. Since it will be a relatively expensive operation, we do need to find sponsors to help produce the results we need.
Therefore, those of you whose organisations have an interest in the area of GHG emissions, I urge you to ensure that you are represented in Chicago, to have someone who can hear the feedback on phase 1 of our project and participate in the second phase. The more of our members and of the wider beef industry are involved, the more useful the work will become.