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At the Senate Committee

April 28th, 2009

The Senate Committee of Inquiry into the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme held hearings in Brisbane today, and I gave evidence, based on the submission I posted a while back. As always, an interesting experience. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the whole event, but the witness before me (operator of a meat processing plant) made the interesting point that, for grass-fed cattle, the methane emissions about which we have heard so much are offset by the carbon sequestration associated with eating grass, which then regrows.

The hearing went pretty well, though there was a minor blowup with Ron Boswell when I said something scathing about the fact that those who rejected the science were had been taken seriously in Australia far longer than in the UK or Europe. None of the other conservative party Senators bit on this one (not that it was meant as a provocation, just a factual observation).

The continuing influence of delusional thinking, when combined with the need to deny any such influence whenever pressed on it, was a big problem for Nelson, continues to be a big one for Turnbull. And given the strength of delusionist defence mechanisms (on view in the thread regarding the fraudulent Climate Coalition) it’s hard to see how it’s going to be resolved any time soon. Unfortunately, Labor is not 100 per cent free of these types, and their influence on policy outcomes, while greatly reduced, remains both real and damaging.

Update In comments, Barry Brook and others offer a pretty complete demolition of the grass sequestration argument. By the time we have eaten the cows there is no net sequestration to offset the methane emissions.

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  1. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    April 28th, 2009 at 17:57 | #1

    I can’t say I had considered it but it seems kind of obvious with hindsight. Although I’m not sure that grass absorbs methane as such.

    I have however heard a similar argument put in terms of defending forestry as an industry. Timber really is a marvelous material.

  2. April 28th, 2009 at 18:02 | #2

    The meat processing plant operator is mistaken.

    The grass takes in CO2 and converts it to carbohydrates (including cellulose) via photosynthesis. Cows eat the grass and digest the cellulose in their rumen, thanks to bacteria that prefer anerobic conditions. During this digestion process, a lot of methane (CH4 is released).

    Methane is 23 times more powerful as a GHG, molecule for molecule, than CO2 when averaged over a 100 year period (72 times more powerful over a 20 year period, after which time most of it has been broken down by hydroxyl radicals).

    So it is true that cows release no net CARBON into the atmosphere. But they ‘supercharge’ the carbon atom, in climate forcing terms, by attaching it to for hydrogen atoms instead of two oxygen atoms.

    So the ‘offset’ is itself ‘offset’ 23 to 72 fold.

    Some details here:
    http://bravenewclimate.com/?s=cattle

  3. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    April 28th, 2009 at 18:20 | #3

    Thats what I love about the Internet.

  4. April 28th, 2009 at 18:24 | #4

    Maybe the meat processing plant operator thinks that if there isn’t any cattle to eat it, then the grass wouldn’t grow.

  5. Salient Green
    April 28th, 2009 at 18:43 | #5

    I think the plant operator has been sniffing his own emissions.

  6. ken n
    April 28th, 2009 at 19:47 | #6

    No, he is correct – except for the argument that methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.
    The only net addition of carbon to the atmosphere comes from burning fossil fuels, ie carbon locked away underground.
    Everything that happens aboveground is a fairly short term recycling between the atmosphere, mammals and growing things (grass, trees and such).
    On this basis, carbon sequestration – putting it back underground – makes logical sense, even though it might not work or be economic. Worth working on, though.

  7. Alice
    April 28th, 2009 at 19:47 | #7

    Oh Puhleese? The grass regrows so we carbon sequestration credits? Goldman Sachs will on to that one in a flash. Selling shares in grass growing firms to get the credits. They will be selling their grandmothers back lawns.

  8. mitchell porter
  9. Salient Green
    April 28th, 2009 at 20:32 | #9

    ken n #6 The poor guy thinks that the cow’s belching and farting of methane is balanced by the storing up of carbon in it’s body.

    That’s as far as he has thought it out. It’s gone from the air into the grass then into the cow and now it’s sequestered as far as he is concerned.

    If we buried the old girl 100 metres deep it would be sequestered. The only way he could be right is if he said that grass fed cows produce less GHG emissions than grain fed cows.

  10. ken n
    April 28th, 2009 at 20:40 | #10

    Alice and SG: Read what I wrote, more carefully.
    Forget sequestration for the moment, just think about the carbon cycling between the atmosphere, the mammal and the grass It’s a fairly short cycle and no carbon is added to it (leave out fertilizers) so if that is all that was going on carbon would not be a concern.
    It is carbon that comes out of the ground – oil, gas and coal – that really adds to the carbon in the atmosphere.
    Remember that no carbon is being created – there is a finite amount on earth – it is just being moved about. It is the stuff that ends up in the atmosphere permanently that is the problem
    The sequestration argument is simply “if it came from underground, can’t be put it back?”
    As I said, it might not work but it is not a crazy idea.

  11. Salient Green
    April 28th, 2009 at 21:13 | #11

    ken n, the ‘poor guy’ I refered to was the plant operator. Myself and Alice are very familiar with the natural carbon cycle and where the extra comes from. We know the cow puts no net extra carbon into the air but ‘the poor guy’ was talking about sequestration which is taking carbon out of the cycle permanently.

  12. Hermit
    April 28th, 2009 at 22:10 | #12

    This is why the CPRS is on a hiding to nothing getting into carbon offsets. Taking notes from EU scheme could have spared them all this. Another agricultural ‘bomb’ is nitrous oxide from decomposing fertiliser with over 300 times the warming potential of CO2. According to climatologist James Hansen the focus must be on phasing out coal. Forget cow farts, hybrid cars, and planting mallee trees just find alternatives to coal burning. Incidentally that will also cut out some fugitive methane released when coal seams are excavated.

    The farmers are wasting everybody’s time since they are outside the initial scope of the scheme. If they are being egged on by the shysters who broker and sell carbon offsets I think it would be better if they remained at arms length.

  13. Gus
    April 28th, 2009 at 23:33 | #13

    Animal farming is responsible for about 11% of our greenhouse gas emissions. Microbes in the Kangaroo gut produce only tiny quantities of methane (http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/120775899/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0).

    Imagine the net benefit if we shift to Kangaroo ranching!! This is low hanging fruit.

  14. April 29th, 2009 at 00:21 | #14

    Methane is a fuel. So collect the methane, sequester the product of oxidation, and you have pretty much a clean coal solution. What to do with the stuff then?

    The simple solution is looking at us right in the face, or right past our left ear.

  15. BilB
    April 29th, 2009 at 05:00 | #15

    The only problem with that argument, JQ, is that the environmental benefit of grass growing has been double counted and triple counted by every other carbon polluter from power stations to your mother’s car’s fuel supplier. Not to mention nature just trying to catchup with the backlog of carbon cycling. The grass does indeed belong to the cows, but who is listening.

  16. Ikonoclast
    April 29th, 2009 at 06:52 | #16

    I’ve taken these bits and pieces from Wikipedia.

    “It is estimated that there are 1.3 billion cattle in the world today.”

    “A 400-page United Nations report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that cattle farming is ‘responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases.’[32] The production of cattle to feed and clothe humans stresses ecosystems around the world,[31] and is assessed to be one of the top three environmental problems in the world on a local to global scale.”

    “Some microbes respire in the cattle gut by an anaerobic process known as methanogenesis (producing the gas methane). Cattle emit a large volume of methane, 95% of it through eructation or burping, not flatulence.[34] As the carbon in the methane comes from the digestion of vegetation produced by photosynthesis, its release into the air by this process would normally be considered harmless, because there is no net increase in carbon in the atmosphere — it’s removed as carbon dioxide from the air by photosynthesis and returned to it as methane. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, having a warming effect 23 to 50 times greater,[35][36] and according to Takahashi and Young ‘even a small increase in methane concentration in the atmosphere exerts a potentially significant contribution to global warming’ ”

    I must admit, I thought the cattle issue was a distraction until I read this. I always regarded fossil burning as the big issue. And I suppose it still is by and large as fossil fuel burning and miscellaneous must account for the other 82%.

    The important fact still is that fossil fuel burning (approaching 82% of our emissions) needs to be phased out urgently. Our meat eating habits need to decline as well.

    One of the problems we face is that our economic system is predicated on consuming more and more in an endless growth fashion. We now need to consume less, much less, to survive. Our economic system will have to be transformed to achieve this.

  17. John Mashey
    April 29th, 2009 at 07:25 | #17

    Well, Barry is certainly right about the methane warming impact, and of course, people are trying to breed livestock or use dietary (see Silencing the Lambs, or less gassy cows) to lower methane belches.

    In addition, many places are at least capturing methane from the other end, i.e., via manure,and burning it for power. That still yields CO2, but is certainly better than emitting CH4.

    ====
    #4 Peter Wood

    Oddly, carefully-scheduled grazing (or cutting) actually does increase grass growth.

    See Michael Pollan’s fine book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, Chapter 10 “Grass” especially “the law of the second bite” and

    “As destructive as overgrazing can be to a pasture, undergrazing can be almost as damaging, since it leads to woody, senescent grasses and a loss of productivity.”

    OR Google: grass growth paddock rotation

    Grass growth follows an S-curve:

    a)It takes a while to get going.
    If livestock eats then, productivity is bad.

    b) After the first inflection point, grass shoots up.

    c) Later, there is a second inflection point and it slows down. That’s when you want the cows.

  18. John Quiggin
    April 29th, 2009 at 09:15 | #18

    I think Barry is right that the greenhouse potency of methane will trump everything else, but a couple of points are relevant for the accounting

    The grass that cattle eat isn’t all turned into methane obviously. The outputs (I may have missed some) are
    (a) Growth, which ultimately becomes the meat we eat
    (b) Metabolism for energy, which should ultimately be returned as CO2 with no net effect
    (c) solid and liquid waste (not sure about the accounting for this)
    (d) Methane from both ends

    As far as the farm itself is concerned, what’s relevant is (I think) the difference between (d) and (a). Of course, we metabolise what we eat, so you could argue for ignoring (a) on this basis.

  19. Ken Miles
    April 29th, 2009 at 09:44 | #19

    BB and HC are correct. The only net sequestration that will happen is if we gain weight. And even that will be released after death.

    Perhaps research into better embalming…

  20. carbonsink
    April 29th, 2009 at 09:58 | #20

    I guess beef is off the menu in 2050 then?

    Forget cow farts, hybrid cars, and planting mallee trees just find alternatives to coal burning.

    Or in Australia’s case, do everything in your power to protect the coal industry, like throwing money at CCS.

  21. John Mashey
    April 29th, 2009 at 11:49 | #21

    re: #20 carbonsink

    Help me out with some numbers if you have any (I know they aren’t easy), for Oz:

    1) How much money does the Oz coal industry spend on advertising and lobbying, including “clean coal”?

    2) How much money is being spent on actually doing R&D & pilot plants to try to make CCS work? How much of that actually comes from coal companies (or do they want everyone else to pay for it)?

    James Hansen wrote:
    “CCS also deserves R&D support. There is no such thing as clean coal at this time, and it is doubtful that we will ever be able to fully eliminate emissions of mercury, other heavy metals, and radioactive material in the mining and burning of coal. However, because of the enormous number of dirty coal-fired power plants in existence, the abundance of the fuel, and the fact that CCS technology could be used at biofuel-fired power plants to draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide, the technology deserves strong R&D support.”

    See my comments @ DeSmogBlog for more detailed discussion. Hansen is nowhere near the only very smart, very-concerned-about-climate person who thinks we need to actually try hard on CCS R&D.

    The issue is clearly distinguishing between 1) and 2).

    ===
    But, back to the cows.
    Without claiming that grass-fed cows are wonderful, at least there are some places where that might actually be a plausible use of the land, and actually good for the grass (manure).

    The *real* CO2/CH4 zinger is feedlot cows fed on grain.

  22. O6
    April 29th, 2009 at 11:54 | #22

    Research is under way to cut ruminants’ methane production. See e.g. http://www.getfarming.com.au/pages/farming/news_view.php?nId=9020334 . From previous work by CSIRO, this new R&D has a good chance of success.
    Of course, Jevons’s Paradox (recently discussed by PrQ) could cut in here.

  23. Chris Warren
    April 29th, 2009 at 12:56 | #23

    Maybe elephants are the real culprits? See;

    Population Elephant

    In this context Attenborough’s “Optimum Population Trust” is a breath of fresh air.

    Do we really need mile-high skyscrapers, more ipods, plastic gizmos, and computer waste dumps?

    Would it be better if we argued for a lower growth economy and declining population and then seek to raise standards in the Third World?

    I am not aware of any economic work being done to develop a sustainable economic model, although, since the 1960′s, many writers have produced arguments for sustainable economics but more as poetic concepts than hard headed proposals.

    The world is doomed if Africa, India, and China reach greenhouse gas emissions of just half the Wests current per capita output.

    Our wizbang growth frenzied industrial model has to go.

    There is no other solution. Political expressions of concerns, reviews, committees, platforms, and the outpourings of business spin-meisters, do not contribute to finding real solutions.

  24. Hermit
    April 29th, 2009 at 13:38 | #24

    @ John Mashey while Hansen may be a leading player in identifying the problems I think he is less astute at identifying solutions. The physical scale of the CCS problem is unassailable
    http://www.grist.org/article/coal-cant
    Like human powered aircraft it may be possible on a small scale but it will remain forever impractical. The dough ($110m?) Rudd is giving to the Clean Coal Institute suggests he is trying to pick winners in advance whereas cap and trade is supposed to be technology neutral. In future climate negotiations he could be accused not only of setting low targets but complicity in stalling tactics.

  25. Salient Green
    April 29th, 2009 at 13:55 | #25

    The world needs to build and operate one Carbon Capture and Storage, CCS, plant as quickly as possible so that it can be seen that the economics do not stack up.
    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/04/carbon-capture-storage-will-happen-should-support.php

    A plant with CCS, sulphur and mercury filters will use up to 35% of the energy generated. That adds up to a lot more coal being burnt.

    A 1 GW coal power station burns 12,000 tonnes of coal a day. That’s a train about 3km long, 100carriages each 120tonnes every day of the year.
    The CO2 produced each day is 20,000 tonnes. Liquified, the volume of 2 more trains would be required to take it out. One train in, two trains out.
    The best figures I have found are .6kwh to liquify 1kg of CO2. As each kg of coal generates 2kwh and 1.8kg CO2, 1.08kwh, over half, would be required to liquify all the CO2 which means they have no intention of capturing all of the emissions.

    This is just as well because where would it all fit? The best figures I have seen are a max of 30% captured, requiring 20% more coal to be burnt, leaving a net capture of at most 10% and a faster drawdown of resources.

    Combined Heat and Power, CHP, where waste heat is used for industrial heating and cooling, and reduces coal burnt and emissions by 67% in one fell swoop, should be front and centre of policy if the Govt is determined to persevere with coal power.

  26. Donald Oats
    April 29th, 2009 at 14:58 | #26

    Excellent work, Salient Green.

    To see the figures like that puts “clean-coal” into a more realistic perspective.

  27. Salient Green
    April 29th, 2009 at 15:52 | #27

    Thanks Donald. The figures are a bit rubbery, the internet being so diverse, but nothing bar total BS could make CCS look better than CHP.

  28. rog
    April 29th, 2009 at 17:17 | #28

    I doubt that the “demolition” is complete, what grass farmers are finding is that by using rotational grazing systems and soil tests carbon is sequestered and that the addition of legumes reduces methane production.

  29. Alice
    April 29th, 2009 at 20:41 | #29

    JQ says
    “By the time we have eaten the cows there is no net sequestration to offset the methane emissions.”

    The most annoying thing is that this has to be proved to some people. To even think that grass growing again after cows have eaten it provides some wort of offset to the methane cows produce is just ridiculous. Some miniscule miniscule offset so miniscule it wouldnt be material.

  30. Alice
    April 29th, 2009 at 20:50 | #30

    In reality Rog#28 – to house more cows, more trees are often cleared so no amount of legumes or rotational grazing system is going to replace the cleared trees.

  31. Alice
    April 29th, 2009 at 20:53 | #31

    Nothing except trees. Why plant legumes when they might be able to plant trees? (on a corner of the property).Let the cows graze but keep some trees. The only unviable thing about this is when Mr Coles and Mr Woolworths control the meat wholesale prices and push the price of meat down so far that farmers cant afford a few extra trees. This is when it gets complicated and even legumes wont do it (cant afford legumes or rotational crop grazing – meat is such a low buying price you have to put as many cows on the land as you can). Solution break up the Monopsony buyers. If only we had teeth in the ACCC.

  32. Brian Bahnisch
    April 30th, 2009 at 00:00 | #32

    Alice, rog I think is the only one above who appreciates that what is at issue here is not the carbon IN the grass, but the carbon residue that is deposited in the soil through the process of plant growth. Some large claims have been made about this, for example Dr Christine Jones of Armidale thinks that Australian rangelands could sequester the entire world output of carbon. We had a look at the issue at LP back in March with a link back to an earlier thread.

    As I see it there are limitations as to how much carbon the soil can store unless you insert it as biochar. The limits are possibly 3% in most soils or up to 7% in peat soils. All soils used for grazing would have some stored carbon, so there are problems about how you would measure the carbon stored and cost of a certification system.

    Moreover, you can’t guarantee that a subsequent land use might not let it all out again.

    I think methane is usually measured on a 100 year view. Barry Brook points out that it is much more potent on a 20 year view, so how much meat we eat and grow is of unrecognised importance.

    BTW I was at the Brisbane hearings all day until about 5pm when Energy Developments reckoned the public shouldn’t hear what they had to say. Our John Quiggin did well, and so did the meat guy, Brad Teys of Teys Bros. My main impression was that some of the energy producers who were worried about sovereign risk in financing new developments would be even more worried after seeing how our pollies carry on.

  33. carbonsink
    April 30th, 2009 at 08:22 | #33

    John Mashey @ 21:

    My impression is that its all 1) greenwashing rather then 2) genuine research in Australia.

    Regardless of whether the research is genuine, will it ever be practical to capture 16 cubic kilometres per day of CO2 from the world’s coal fired power stations?

  34. Alice
    April 30th, 2009 at 10:38 | #34

    32#Thanks for the link Brian. I think I learnt something there (sort of??) but I worry that some will just see carbon credits as a way to fiddle the books (plant a small patch of lupins next to the back verandah and claim a tax credit?). Some useless initiatives and some exploitation of the legislation is bound to arise – hotshot loophole accountants and finance experts being what they are – not that we should abandon the whole scheme lest we lose the useful initiatives.

  35. Brian Bahnisch
    April 30th, 2009 at 22:42 | #35

    Alice, you are right about trees storing more carbon than grasslands of course. From one of the posts at the end of Barry Brook’s link @ 2, grasslands store 0.4 to 3.8 tonnes per hectare above the ground and 30 tonnes below. The equivalents for wet tropical forests are 130 and 213. All other forests and woodlands are somewhere in between.

    Far fewer hectares are required to produce cereals, fruit and veg rather than meet, especially beef. But not all land is suitable for intensive farming and people, given the choice, will increasingly eat beef. I imagine, though, that if the true cost of methane emissions from beef are included it will be very expensive and become a niche product for the wealthy.

    One of the Teys Bros man’s big points at the hearings was that in Australia our beef producers are 60% more efficient than Brazil because of better genetics and better grasses. In the CPRS it’s only the larger abattoirs (those that produce 25k/t of beef pa) that get caught up in the CPRS. Teys abattoirs are all big because they’ve closed their less efficient small ones. Our major export competitors will be outside any such scheme for the foreseeable future with the possible exception of the US.

  36. John Mashey
    May 1st, 2009 at 07:17 | #36

    re: #33 carbonsink (& others earlier)

    The cows & methane thread is good; I don’t want to hijack it into CCS. If this post is too OT, feel free to dump it.

    ASTUTE PEOPLE
    I mentioned Hansen, Chu, and Oxburgh. I’ve heard Hansen talk and had dinner with him, i.e., plenty of chance for questions and discussion. I’d say he’s pretty astute on solutions, but that’s just an opinion. Lord Oxburgh I’ve known for years, and he’s definitely astute on such things. I don’t know Chu, but know many who do. I am unable to trivially dismiss these folks, as they are all concerned about CO2&energy and all smarter than I.

    COAL CCS
    Coal CCS is locally way more important for Australia than here in Northern California.

    Coal CCS is of global interest to me, i.e., how do we plausibly reduce global CO2 emissions as fast as (technically and politically) possible. Having grown up in coal country, I’d personally be happy to see coal disappear overnight, but that would mean the lights go out for a lot of people, including most of Oz.

    Coal vendors are playing chicken, I think. If they really thought they had a choice of total shutdown vs CCS, they’d get very excited about CCS, but if they think the choice is between CCS and Business As Usual, they prefer the latter and lobby/advertise to keep it that way. I make no claim to understand Oz politics, but so far, they seem to be successful, or Oz might look a little more like:

    NORCAL
    Northern California, i.e., primarily PG&E uses very little coal, ~2%, primarily from existing long-term contracts.

    We basically don’t have coal plants around here, I doubt any more will ever be built. I’m not sure if we’ll later do CCS for some of the (newer) gas plants, or try to phase them down in favor of pure renewables. We have some of the cleanest electricity in the US, but of course, it’s nowhere near good enough.

    CO2 PIPELINES
    The US has 3 decades of history of getting CO2 from wells and other sources, compressing it, and piping it to oil fields for enhanced oil recovery by oil companies who *pay* for the CO2. There are ~3,600 miles of pipelines, although the current ones are certainly not big enough to handle 1GW coal plants.

    Here is a 2007 Report on CCS for US Congress for serious discussion. Note that people think about pipelines, not railroad cars full of liquified CO2.

    In the US, CA is one of the better analogs to Oz, at least in climate and water issues, except for Oz being so dependent on coal.

    CCS for coal plants is no magic panacea, and geography matters a lot, as do local economics. What works one place may be irrelevant somewhere else. It is certainly awkward for Oz that the more plausible storage areas are in WA.

    SERIOUS PEOPLE
    Nobody I know that is actually *serious* about real coal CCS R&D thinks that one can or should even try to do this everywhere or even most places.

    They tend to think about:

    a) Not building another coal plant, i.e., going all-out on energy efficiency and renewables.

    b) Looking at the entire portfolio of power plants, including plant age/efficiency, reasonable local alternatives, whether it is mine-head or uses coal shipped in, etc, etc.

    c) Looking at the plausible places that:
    1) actually *want* CO2 (oil fields) or
    2) that could at least store it safely, i.e., maybe saline aquifers.

    d) Then, figuring out the best combination of BAU, CCS, or shutdown, over decades. If you *want* to build new coal plants, by all means, do CHP – I’m a big fan of Tom Casten and Bob Ayres on that. The real problem is the large installed base of existing coal plants, transmission facilities.

    BOTTOM LINE
    In some places, without CCS, it is a choice of BAU or shut-down, and it will be very hard to get shut-down. Oz certainly could do {solar, wind, nuclear}, unlike some places, but it takes a while to do this, even assuming the political will exists.

    Coal vendors seem to like the *idea* of CCS to let them keep on with BAU, but as far as I can tell, they don’t necessarily *want* CCS to work, because they might actually have to do it sometimes.

  37. Salient Green
    May 1st, 2009 at 09:11 | #37

    John Mashey, of course no one thinks about CO2 liquid in terms of train carriages but it is a good analogy and people should think about it that way at least once in their lifetimes to appreciate the volumes involved.

    The problem of course is the system, where an essential service has been sold off to the greed of profit makers who rely on volume of sales for those profits. There is no incentive to actually reduce the amount of electricity sold.

    I have read that business generally requires a 2 year payback time for energy efficiency measures. If that is true, the culture needs to change there as well.

    By far the best way to deal with GHG emissions is to not burn FF in the first place and energy efficiency does that. You don’t need to build a new power station to capture waste heat so I don’t understand why the choices you gave as being on the minds of power companies didn’t include CHP.

  38. Salient Green
    May 1st, 2009 at 10:15 | #38

    I’ve just done a quick browse of waste heat recovery system and was surprised to find so many Rankine cycle systems to turn waste heat, from 75F upwards for direct electricity generation.

    This is a mature technology and it beggars belief that power companies are not using it let alone every other industrial process that wastes heat, aluminium smelting coming instantly to mind.

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