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Unmasking Emissions: How the Meat Industry Could Use GWP Metric to Greenwash Its Climate Impact

Courtesy of the Changing Markets Foundation
Courtesy of the Changing Markets Foundation

The Seeing Stars report by the Changing Markets Foundation critically analyzes the GWP (Global Warming Potential) metric, a new method proposed by the meat and dairy industry for measuring methane emissions. While GWP is claimed to better account for methane's shorter atmospheric lifespan, the report warns of potential greenwashing risks, enabling these industries to understate their emissions and sidestep necessary climate action​​.

GWP vs GWP100

GWP100, the current standard, measures greenhouse gas emissions over a 100-year period in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). In contrast, GWP focuses on changes in emission rates over shorter timescales, rather than absolute emission levels. This distinction is crucial since methane, despite its shorter atmospheric presence, is significantly more potent than carbon dioxide, exacerbating global warming​​.

Implications for Livestock Emissions Reporting

Livestock farming, a major source of human-caused methane emissions, could see its emission reporting radically altered under GWP. The report's analysis of companies like Fonterra and Tyson Foods revealed that minor methane reductions could be misleadingly portrayed as negative emissions or cooling. For example, Fonterra could claim no net warming with just a 17% reduction in emissions by 2030 using GWP, compared to over 21 million tonnes of emissions per year under GWP100 calculations. Similarly, Tyson could appear to remove 82.6 million tonnes of CO2e annually with a 30% reduction, while GWP100 metrics would show it still emitting 58.5 million tonnes annually​​.

2030 emissions estimates for Tyson and Fonterra, calculated using GWP100, GWP20 and GWP* methodologies - Changing Stars Foundation
2030 emissions estimates for Tyson and Fonterra, calculated using GWP100, GWP20 and GWP* methodologies - Changing Stars Foundation

Governmental Push for GWP

Governments in countries like New Zealand, Ireland, and the US are also advocating for GWP. For instance, New Zealand, where agriculture (mostly methane emissions) accounts for half of all emissions, could claim to be methane-negative by 2038 with just a 10% reduction in methane emissions using GWP. However, GWP100 estimates show it would still emit 30 million tonnes of methane each year. This trend is echoed in Ireland and the US, where agriculture represents a significant portion of total emissions. Lobbying efforts have been made to adopt GWP in international climate negotiations and policy-making​​.

Equity and Greenwashing Concerns

A major issue with GWP is equity. It could penalize countries increasing livestock production from a low base, often those in the Global South, more harshly than major emitters with large but stable herds. Furthermore, companies with high but stable methane emissions might exploit GWP to claim climate neutrality or negativity based on minor reductions. This scenario opens the door for greenwashing, allowing companies to exaggerate small emissions reductions as significant achievements. The EU's recent legislation to curb greenwashing in the food and beverage sector, particularly meat and dairy producers, reflects the urgency of addressing these misleading claims​​.

Conclusion and Alternatives

The "Seeing Stars" report highlights the critical need for accurate and equitable metrics in climate policy. While GWP100 may not fully capture methane's short-term impact, GWP presents risks of underrepresenting emissions and overstating climate efforts. Alternatives like GWP20, which reflects the urgency of climate actions and the need for rapid methane reductions, could offer a more balanced approach. Policymakers are urged to resist industry lobbying for GWP and prioritize metrics that align with the current climate emergency.

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