Methane, a Significant Environmental Problem.

Social IssuesEnvironment

  • Author Fee O'shea
  • Published September 23, 2023
  • Word count 895

Methane emissions from livestock, especially cattle, are a significant environmental problem. The methane produced as a by-product of cow digestion through belching and flatulence warms the planet at an accelerated rate.

In Aotearoa, N.Z., we are concerned about meeting the Paris Agreement commitments for greenhouse gas emissions (currently falling very short). And this being an election year, wouldn't you think the environment would be front and centre on the campaign trail? 

Apart from the Greens, little is said. In fact, the opposition party came out recently saying they want to build a four-lane highway from Whangārei to Tauranga – a distance of 357.4 km or approximately 222 miles. Talk about upping the pollution! But do they want to curb methane? No.

National's idea is to develop policies that reflect the sustainability and competitiveness of one of New Zealand's most profitable sectors (dairy). And the current Government (Labour) is no better. They are putting the focus on reducing fossil fuel (we've managed to increase the amount of coal we import) and attempting to clean up rivers and lakes. Good luck with that, while we have farmed animals and heavy dependence on fertilisers.

From the Labour's website:

"We've passed the landmark Zero Carbon Act, banned new offshore oil and gas exploration, worked with farmers on a world-leading agreement to reduce agricultural emissions, invested in innovative low-carbon technology and more to help us meet our climate goals."

Even with all this, our emissions have gone up, not down. Go figure???

Let's face it, they and other political parties are hoping that technology will fix the cows' methane release issue.

Most of the N.Z. gross emissions rise comes from methane-producing animals like cows, and it's way more than any other developed country. So one would think that the cows' farts (burps to those who don't like me saying fart) would be the main area to look at.

A few years ago, I heard the funniest thing - The Federated Farmers Vice President said:

"Basically, my cow goes out, eats some grass, has a burp that goes up as methane, hangs around for 12 and a half years, breaks down, grows another blade of grass, and it's a cycle that's happening."

It was like, What ?????? So a cow only burbs once???? Perhaps this farmer (and he's not the only one) doesn't know how to do math. I only got about 8% for the national math exams when I was at school, but even I can see the total illogical mathematical discrepancy here.

So let's get a wee technical (Fee style). Methane contributes to greenhouse warming twenty times that of CO2 on a per-molecule basis.

Now methane may be more potent, but it only stays in the atmosphere for approximately 12 years and then converts to carbon dioxide. The farmers are saying that the amount of methane going into the atmosphere is roughly equal to the amount that is leaving because it's being converted to carbon dioxide. So really, there's no loss or gain.

In other words. The burp that happens today will be converted in 12 years, and the burps that occurred 12 years ago are being converted today … so every day, there is a conversion of past burps.

Okay, so now this is where I beg to differ. In my probably illogical mind, if we keep increasing the number of farmed animals because it's not just the dairy, it's also cattle, sheep, goats and farmed deer, plus chickens and pigs create methane from their manure, we are going to have more methane going up than what's leaving, and unless we decrease the number of farmed animals we will always be that one burb more going up than coming down.

I understand where they're coming from in regard to methane being turned into CO2. What I'm afraid I have to disagree with is that there is a significant imbalance because we continue to breed more and more animals each year – all contributing to methane.

Don't get me wrong - carbon emissions are also a genuine problem, and fossil fuel has to go etc., but it pains me that our Government has hedged the issue, and I think it's because

a) It's easier to decrease carbon emissions than methane, and

b) The dairy industry is such a money puller for Aotearoa they don't want to upset them.

So our Govt has proposed three pathways to net-zero emissions by 2050:

  1. The first option is to be net-zero in carbon dioxide - there's no mention of methane at all.

  2. The second is to be net zero in all emissions.

  3. The third is to be net zero in carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide and to stabilise methane.

Methane might be the shortest-lived gas, but wow, we have so much of it that it's actually the biggest lot of gas that we emit. Wouldn't we tackle that first??

Dr. Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, he's a climate scientist at the University of Chicago, said it best:

"Methane is like a hangover that you can get over if you stop drinking. CO2 is more like lead poisoning — it sticks around, you don't get rid of it, and it causes irreversible harm."

As I said - we are producing more methane than any other gas - why are we not getting over the hangover by gradually reducing the number of agricultural animals?

Of course, we could all go vegan - that would solve the argument.

Fee O’Shea is a Gold Card (senior citizen) author of six books, including ‘The Rise of the Modern Vegan’. She is passionate about all critters and can be seen out chalk-bombing the streets or talking to folk about veganism. Fee also speaks at events for those interested in their health or the vegan lifestyle.

Fee’s website: is a resource to help promote veganism.

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