Insights on livestock’s role in climate mitigation

27 February 20245 min reading

Professor Ermias Kebreab

In a recent and insightful discussion, Professor Kebreab’s focus remained on exploring the potential of the livestock sector in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Highlighting the importance of government co-financing and scientific protocols, Kebreab emphasized the need for sustainable solutions to address enteric methane emissions. With a forward-looking perspective, he envisioned significant reductions in emissions from livestock production in the coming years, underlining the sector’s pivotal role in combating climate change.

In the ongoing discourse surrounding climate change and its multifaceted challenges, one contentious issue often under scrutiny is the role of livestock in exacerbating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While some advocate for drastic measures, such as eliminating ruminants altogether due to their perceived environmental harm, others argue for a more nuanced approach. Ermias Kebreab, an esteemed figure in the realm of sustainable agriculture and animal science, stands firmly in the camp that believes livestock can indeed be part of the solution to the climate crisis.

Professor Ermias Kebreab holds a distinguished position as the associate dean for global engagement in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis, alongside his directorship of the esteemed World Food Center. As the Sesnon Endowed Chair in the Department of Animal Science, Kebreab’s expertise extends far and wide, underpinned by a rich academic background and a prolific research portfolio. With over 200 peer-reviewed publications to his name, Kebreab’s contributions to the field are not only substantial but also impactful.

His involvement in various esteemed organizations, including chairing the United Nations FAO Technical Working Group on Feed Additives and serving as a committee member for the National Academy of Sciences, underscores his pivotal role in shaping policies and initiatives aimed at mitigating GHG emissions from livestock. Kebreab’s commitment to advancing sustainable practices and fostering international collaborations underscores his dedication to addressing the grand challenges facing our global food systems.

In a recent dialogue with FEFAC, Professor Kebreab delved into the intricacies of climate change mitigation within the livestock sector. Amidst the polarized debates surrounding GHG emissions, Kebreab’s perspective emerges as a beacon of reason, advocating for pragmatic solutions that harness the potential of livestock to contribute positively to environmental sustainability. As the conversation unfolds, Kebreab offers invaluable insights into the opportunities and challenges inherent in reducing GHG emissions, shedding light on the pivotal role that livestock can play in forging a more sustainable future.

Professor Kebreab, how can we increase the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions?

To try to increase the mitigation, we need to have some specific things. One is government co-financing, that is making sure that the governments are helping with the mitigation efforts. Sometimes, involving independent bodies and governments for research is much better. So, the data from it is independent of any private organization.


Where do the main carbon reduction opportunities stand?

Currently, the biggest opportunities are crops, soils, and enteric methane emissions. So, in enteric methane emissions, because most of the emissions from cattle, from ruminants, is in the form of methane, and if we can capture and reduce that, then I think there’s a lot of opportunitiedd there. Also, methane is much more impactful when it comes to the climate and the effect on the temperature of the Earth. So, reducing methane and capturing methane or ensuring that we have a sustainable and permanent reduction, because the issue we have with crops and soils is that sometimes the reductions may not be permanent or maybe they can be for a few years. If things change, then that carbon will come up. But with livestock, it’s different because those reductions are permanent, and it’s quite straightforward to show that there’s a permanency there. So there’s a lot more opportunity for the credibility of the production of those emissions.

How can we achieve this goal and implement all this?

We need to have a way to account for the credibility of those reductions and ensure environmental integrity, and the way to do that is to develop protocols. Those protocols have to be very open to the public. First, they have to be developed with input from scientists – independent scientists that do not have any role in producing feed additives or anything like that. So, using studies published in peer-reviewed journals, we will have to make sure that this is a credible science-based protocol, and we use that protocol to estimate the reductions and then the carbon credits.


What is the regulatory situation nowadays globally?

I think the regulatory markets seem to be expanding slightly right now. There’s not much regulation or compliance, you only see it in California or Europe. I think also Australia and Canada but not much beyond that. A lot of it is voluntary reductions at the moment. But the compliance market is coming up. I think people are watching what’s happening in other jurisdictions, and then I think politicians will have more appetite once they see how it’s working. And in New Zealand, they were going to come up very soon. In terms of the regulatory framework to reduce emissions, I think other governments will probably follow. Still, it’s only in a very limited number of places, like States in the US and then a few countries worldwide.

Is there a large potential for climate change mitigation for livestock?

Yes, absolutely. Livestock production will always have an environmental impact just as you would with the production of crops. Still, I think we can hope to reduce, and we have the tools now to reduce emissions substantially. There’s a lot of interest in doing that, and much work has already been done. We can harness all this energy and these efforts (made and still to be made) to help mitigate the climate impacts and reduce emissions. In the next five to ten years, I expect a 30 to 50% reduction in emissions from livestock. That’s what I believe because the work done so far is phenomenal, and we have tools to help us reduce emissions by well over 30% right now.

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