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US beef industry emerges from Biden’s climate pledges ‘relatively unscathed’ | Beef

The US beef industry has escaped “relatively unscathed” from Joe Biden’s attempts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, according to leaders at the industry’s recent CattleCon convention.

Biden and the EU unveiled a global pledge to cut methane gas 30% by 2030 at November’s Cop26 climate summit – and there is evidence that methane created by cattle production is a significant contributor to climate change.

But those at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) annual trade show in Houston last month heard industry leaders express relief about the administration choosing to incentivize rather than force ranchers and feedlots to reduce emissions.

Mary-Thomas Hart, NCBA’s environmental counsel, told a sustainability forum at the conference how lucky the industry was with the administration’s approach, according to information obtained by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigations project, and shared with the Guardian.

“A good example is, during Cop26, the president led a global methane pledge, and that could have gone really badly for livestock production in the United States, could have gone badly for the cattle industry,” Hart told her audience. “But this administration seems to have recognized the positive value we bring. We were really excited to get out of that relatively unscathed.”

Methane, expelled by cows and by their manure, is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Although methane dissipates after 10 to 20 years, it warms the planet at 80 times the rate of carbon dioxide and emissions are accelerating at an unprecedented rate, according to the UN.

Although Biden’s November pledge to reduce methane included new rules for the oil, gas and coal industries, it proposed only voluntary actions for an agricultural sector the Environmental Protection Agency says contributes more than one-third of the country’s emissions. In a November interview with Reuters, agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said he trusted the agriculture industry to do the right thing in response to federal incentives.

“Agriculture will respond to this because they have historically responded to financial and market incentives,” Vilsack said in that interview. “They appreciate the time has come.”

Aerial view of a cattle feedlot
Aerial view of a cattle feedlot. Photograph: Peakguy/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Some in Houston made that appreciation clear, with at least one speaker telling the trade show audience that the beef industry stands to make a lot of money off federal emissions-reduction incentives.

New rules would stifle an industry that is already working hard to fight climate change, Hart told the trade show audience. “The last thing we need to do is implement regulations. They’d get in the way of that productivity,” Hart said. “Global beef demand isn’t going away. If US cow producers aren’t allowed to do their job and do it well, that production’s just going to go to a less sustainable country.”

Some cattle producers are making an effort to reduce emissions, such as feeding animals grass or other lower-emission materials, but the United States will never meet Biden’s 2030 greenhouse gas reduction goals without regulation, said Brent Kim, a program officer with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

“We urgently need to curb greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, of which livestock is the biggest producer,” Kim said. “We can’t have business as usual.”

The NCBA declined a request to comment.

The beef association has pledged to reach “climate neutrality” by 2040 and said in Houston it was on track to reach that goal. But the group’s leaders also said that benchmark should be measured using a scale critics say obscures beef’s role in climate change.

At the Houston meeting, NCBA’s CEO Colin Woodall again noted the importance of getting policymakers on board with the contentious global warming potential measurement, called GWP*, which measures changes in greenhouse gases rather than focusing on steady sources such as cattle. The star refers to the new metric for calculating the impact of methane emissions on global heating, which has not been accepted by all.

“For us to be successful. GWP* – global warming potential star – is the methodology we need to make sure that everybody is utilizing in order to tell the true story of methane,” Woodall said. “And that’s one of the reasons why NCBA spends time on Capitol Hill making sure that our government recognizes it.”

Some experts said GWP* might have merit as one of many ways to measure greenhouse gas emissions, but using it to justify a lack of regulation is questionable. “I’m not throwing shade on it,” Kim said. “I think it’s helpful to have all these different ways of measurement. But it does paint beef as more reasonable.”

No other country has accepted GWP* as a way of regulating the beef industry, said Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist. “They don’t get a free pass by messing about with the metrics,” Parr said. “It’s pretty obvious that they’re sort of leaping on the opportunity to get a free pass as an industry from taking more responsibility for their emissions.”

The federal government can’t allow the beef industry to run amok, said Cathy Day, the climate policy coordinator for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Voluntary actions and incentives will not be enough to slow climate change, she said.

“There’s zero action by the federal government to crack down on methane emissions in the cattle industry,” Day said. “There isn’t a lot of interest in anything that would restrict the way they do business.”

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