Australia Seeks Ways to Reduce Animal Gas Emissions

By Patrick Goodenough | February 27, 2009 | 4:58 AM EST

( – In its ongoing quest to reduce the emissions of gases blamed for climate change – and placate grumbling green activists – the Australian government has earmarked $17 million for research into how to prevent the country’s 120 million farm animals from emitting so much methane.
The project, launched this week by Agriculture Minister Tony Burke, will fund 18 areas of research, including dietary changes, genetic manipulation and ways to control stomach bacteria to reduce methane production.
As the animals chew, belch and pass wind, they release methane, while nitrous oxide is released from their waste. Both are “greenhouse gases” and are, scientists say, considerably more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas that gets most attention from global warming proponents.
Among the 18 research projects is one that look into ways of reducing nitrous oxide emissions, through “manure management innovations.”
According to Burke, methane from Australian ruminants alone accounts for about 12 percent of the country’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions.
This makes the country’s livestock – 85 million sheep, more than 31 million beef and dairy cattle, and three million goats – the third-largest source of greenhouse gases in Australia, after energy and transportation.
Just one grazing beef cow in northern Australia accounts for the equivalent of 1.65 tons of CO2 a year, Burke said. (A medium-sized, 21 mpg car running 1,000 miles a month, emits about 6.6 tons a year, according to a popular online CO2 calculator.)
In a radio interview, Burke acknowledged that Australian farmers would have to pay for the new project, through increased transportation and input costs.
“There is no cost-free method of dealing with this,” he said. “Of course, there are costs involved with action … but the alternative is far, far worse.”
The government has not, so far, broached the possibility of taxing farmers for the methane produced by their animals. In 2003, the center-left government in neighboring New Zealand backed down on a proposal to levy a “fart tax” on farmers for their livestock’s flatulence, after drawing angry protests and not a little ridicule.
Since then, both countries have had a change of government, New Zealand edging rightwards and Australia to the left.
Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, like President Bush, opposed the Kyoto Protocol, which sets specified targets for industrialized countries’ greenhouse gas emissions.
Australia greenhouse gas emissions are the highest, per capita, in the developed world, largely as a result of the use of coal for electricity, and green activists vilified Howard for his stance.
His successor, Kevin Rudd, made signing of instruments to ratify the agreement his first official act on taking office in December 2007.
Rudd’s embracing of Kyoto won him praise internationally, but within a year activists were attacking him as a climate villain for announcing relatively modest greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.
He said Australia, through measures including the introduction by 2010 of a carbon trading scheme, would aim for cuts of at least five percent of 1990 emissions levels by 2020.
By comparison, the European Union aims to cut emissions by 20 percent by then, and the U.N.’s climate change panel wants industrialized countries, as a group, to aim for 25-40 percent reductions.
Unlike sheep and cows, kangaroos release a negligible amount of methane when they eat. This prompted the Rudd government’s climate change adviser, Prof. Ross Garnaut, to suggest in a report last October that Australian livestock producers consider shifting to kangaroo meat.
He conceded that “consumer resistance” may pose a difficulty.
In a recent survey, reported by the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia, only 17 percent of more than 200 chefs at restaurants in Australia’s three biggest cities said they offered kangaroo meat. Almost half of those surveyed cited “greater public acceptance” when asked what it would take to increase consumption of the animal.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow