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The government of New Zealand has proposed a novel way of fighting climate change: charging farmers for the burps, farts and waste of farm animals.
New Zealand is a progressive, eco-friendly country, but also a land where sheep and cattle both outnumber people.
Sheep, cows and other livestock contribute to climate change in various ways, including by grazing on land that was clear-cut to make room for them and by eating grains grown where forest once stood. But they also create planet-warming emissions directly, as a byproduct of their digestion, which releases methane — a powerful greenhouse gas.
So, as part of a system of selling tradable emissions credits, New Zealand wants to require ranchers to buy credits for the methane their livestock produce.
"There is no question that we need to cut the amount of methane we are putting into the atmosphere, and an effective emissions pricing system for agriculture will play a key part in how we achieve that," James Shaw, New Zealand's climate change minister, told BBC News last week.
Methane is the second-most prevalent greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, and the majority of methane emissions come from human activity. Since methane causes much more warming than carbon in the first few decades after it is released, but then dissipates in the atmosphere more quickly, clamping down on methane emissions is essential to averting catastrophic climate change, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. President Biden and the European Union unveiled a global effort to cut methane emissions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, last November.
Contrary to endless Republican jokes about how Democrats want to ban cow farts, burps are actually the more widespread issue for climate change. As WebMD, which cleverly labeled the New Zealand plan “an animal gas tax,” explains, cows and sheep have stomachs with separate compartments, one of which, known as the rumen chamber, is filled with microbes that break down the plants they eat. That process produces carbon dioxide and methane, which they burp out into the atmosphere.
“Cows are pretty disgusting eaters, with methane coming from both ends,” Christopher Field of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, told the Associated Press in 2019. “But most of it comes from burping.”
According to an estimate cited by the Associated Press, “methane emitted by ruminant livestock accounts for about 5.5% of the greenhouse gases that come from human activity.” The total greenhouse gas emissions from all livestock — including manure storage, transportation and so on — accounts for 14.5% of all global emissions, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.
New Zealand’s burp tax would take effect in 2025, and it would also provide farmers with subsidies to switch their livestock to a special diet that avoids creating greenhouse gases, such as feeding them seaweed instead of grass or grain, or to offset the emissions by planting trees. The country will also pour money into research that could advance other technological fixes, such as outfitting animals with masks that capture their emissions, or selectively breeding cows that burp less.
Even New Zealand’s farm industry is supportive.
"We've been working with the government and other organizations on this for years to get an approach that won't shut down farming in New Zealand, so we've signed off on a lot of stuff we're happy with,” Andrew Hoggard, a dairy farmer and the national president of Federated Farmers of New Zealand, told the BBC.