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Carbon neutral dairy farming: are you ready to take part? Ep. 1 – Dairy GHG emissions & potential solutions

“The dairy sector plays a critical role in sustainable food systems and can contribute directly and indirectly to all the Sustainable Development Goals.” This is what FAO’s Director-General, Qu Dongyu stated in 2020 about the role of our industry within the UN commitment towards the future of our society and planet, in a context marked by both growing population and concern about the environment. With this in mind, carbon neutrality has been set as a goal for dairy farming within 2050. Will this be possible? How will it be achieved? Many are the questions rising from this topic, thus, in the following lines, we aim at collecting some of the most recent ideas and expressing ours, regarding how the dairy sector will need to change to achieve this goal. 

Current dairy emission landscape at a glance 

Before starting to analyse the current landscape, it is essential to understand that the main players involved in achieving this goal are dairy value chain’s members, thus: 

  • Dairy farming, a net contributor to direct emissions and suffering the increasingly extreme weather events. 
  • Dairy chain, which depends on farmers’ ability tsupply milk, and consumers’ demand. 
  • Consumers, more and more concerned about the future of the planet, and reflecting this trend on the dairy industry. 
  • Policy, as new laws and regulations determine our way to do business. 

IDF’s research shows that dairy environmental impact currently accounts for 2.7% on global GHG emissions, mainly including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). Achieving global carbon neutrality would therefore mean that CO2 emissions are balanced by implementing actions aimed at preventing the gas from spreading in the atmosphere

As reported by FAO, commitment in favour of a low emission future has intensified in 2015, when the Paris Agreement set the global aim to limit warming to below 2°C, pursuing effort to limit it to 1.5°C. In 92 countriesthe livestock sector was included in the nationally determined commitments towards a sustainable low carbon development pathway.  

This challenge requires a methodology based on farm data to get estimations on GHG emissions from all countries in the world, even those for which material available is limited, which will also allow to understand the different dairy farming systems. 

With this purpose, FAO established the GLEAM (Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model). As a biophysical model, it displays the emissions from dairy livestock sector through a LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) approach, meaning that it takes into account both direct and indirect emission sources and allocates them geographically, as in Figure 1.  

 

Figure 1 - Global map of GHG emission intensities from livestock system.
Source: Five practical actions towards low-carbon livestock (fao.org) 

 

The image reveals that high-income countries, with more efficient livestock production systems, account for a lower emission release. Low- and middle-income countries, instead, have higher emission intensities. 

Research shows, in fact, an inverse relationship between production increase and emission intensity reduction (Figure 2). 

 

Figure 2 - Relationship between average GHG emission intensity from dairy systems and their average productivity.
Source: Five practical actions towards low-carbon livestock (fao.org) 

Advancements especially occurred unevenly across and within regions, and primarily in high-income countries, as more advanced in terms of technology and policies. On the other hand, wide room is left to further mitigate dairy farming systems’ impact in low- and middle-income countries. In fact, as World Economic Forum states, since these markets are booming and already account for two-thirds of global population, their conversion towards low-carbon pathways is vital to achieve the goal. 

 

How could dairy GHG emissions be reduced? 

So far, we outlined the current GHG emissions of dairy sector, but which are some possible actions to make in favour of carbon neutrality? 

Both FAO and GDP see as primary step the understanding of each dairy system, through measurement and data, in order to develop the most suitable approach for its socioeconomic settings.  

Then, they group options into five categories: 

  • Reductions, including increased efficiency and improved farm management, as well as the use of feed additive or methane inhibitors to reduce enteric emissions and manure management. 
  • Avoidance, which implies recycling biomass and agro-industrial waste, along with avoiding land use change. 
  • Removals, as soil carbon sequestration and planting trees on the farm, to compensate emissions. 
  • Offset strategiesshifting to renewable energy on-farm, such as solar, wind or biogas.   
  • New technologies and farming systems. 

Nevertheless, since the implementation of these actions is seen as an additional investment, a suitable support from Government and financial institutions is seen as the key to commit dairy value chain’s members across the world to a carbon neutral pathway. 

Throughout these lines, attention has been paid to results regarding dairy sector’s current GHG release, as well as the possible achievement of carbon neutrality by 2050. 

In the next episode, we will investigate the standpoint of our team membersregarding the feasibility of achieving this goal. Don’t miss it! 

Sources: 

 

Date: 10 August 2021

  • Summary:
    Carbon neutral dairy farming: are you ready to take part? Ep. 1 – Dairy GHG emissions & potential solutions