Speaking at the United Nations climate summit in Paris this month, Gov. Jerry Brown said that tackling “short-lived climate pollutants is probably the most immediate challenge, and the most important thing to do leaving this conference.” He earlier announced that California was launching an aggressive effort to reduce these greenhouse gases, including methane emissions.
The governor’s emphasis on reducing these pollutants is backed by the University of California’s Climate Solutions Group, which identified it as the No. 1 “science solution” for reducing greenhouse gases and highlighted the value of bio-methane as a clean energy source.
Methane, which over 20 years is about 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, comes from a variety of sources and is responsible for about 20 percent of California’s emissions. The state’s dairy industry, the nation’s largest, accounts for a significant share of these methane emissions.
But in California, as in the rest of the nation, there has long been a trend toward “cleaner, greener” cows.
U.S. dairy farmers have steadily improved the efficiency of milk production, and that has resulted in a dramatic decrease in methane emissions from dairy cows – less than half compared to 1924 to produce the 94 million tons of milk annually now.
Still, these emissions can potentially be cut even more through the use of methane digesters, which capture and destroy emissions and make renewable energy and transportation fuel.
The California Natural Resources Agency recognized the value of methane digesters in an October draft report that said, “Dairy anaerobic digesters are poised to become a larger contributor to California’s renewable energy portfolio.” Moreover, the byproduct of digesters contributes to healthy soils and crops.
California’s dairy industry has been working closely with the state’s Air Resources Board and Department of Food and Agriculture on a strategic plan for reducing methane with advanced manure management. While “stubborn barriers remain,” the draft plan says, they “are not insurmountable, and now is the time to solve them.”
A recent report by Ramboll Environ shows that digesters provide tremendous “bang for the buck” by reducing large amounts of methane per dollar compared to other projects.
While digesters are expensive, the draft strategic plan recommends putting them on as many as several hundred dairies in the state, and recommends an initial investment of $500 million over the next five years.
In addition to providing biogas, biomethane can be used as a fuel for buses and other medium and heavy-duty vehicles. Using dairy methane as a fuel in the San Joaquin Valley and South Coast would also reduce nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions. Disadvantaged communities will benefit directly, especially residents who live near major truck routes.
Contributions to clean energy hold significant promise for the state and the dairy industry, which produces California’s top farm commodity. The University of California Agricultural Issues Center found that dairy operations contribute $21 billion and 189,000 jobs annually to the state’s economy.
Now dairies have the opportunity to make another substantial contribution by reducing greenhouse gases while continuing to be an example to the world on sound environmental stewardship.
That is becoming more important because milk consumption is increasing rapidly in the developing world as populations and incomes grow, according to the United Nations. At the same time, the World Health Organization says developing nations could also benefit “if captured biogas – a relatively clean fuel – replaces coal or biomass in poor households.”
California’s dairies can help show the world how to enhance sustainability, but only if the governor and Legislature provide critical funding. Investing in sustainable dairy farming should be a cornerstone of efforts coming out of Paris.
Michael Boccadoro is president of West Coast Advisors, a Sacramento-based government affairs consulting firm whose clients include California’s dairy industry, and can be contacted at email@example.com. Kurt Schuparra is vice president of the firm and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.