Thursday, June 14, 2007

cows as biomass

RWE Npower, not content with being the largest CO2 emitter in European power production, decided they'd move into more eco sources by, oooh what? Offshore windfarms? Rooftop solar panels?

Nope. Burning palm oil.

Brother George Monbiot's done not one but two whole articles on why biofuels for cars are worse than fossils.

Burning down tropical forest so that the trees release their carbon, then draining the peat soils so they decompose and release their carbon means palm oil is at least ten times worse than burning fossils!

Amazingly, the message is getting through. Even as biofuels try to take hold, the truth is coming out. RWE Npower, despite successful testing of burning palm oil in a Kent power station, decided not to go ahead on environmental grounds.

When I first signed up to Yorkshire Electricity's green tariff years ago, I was sent a welcome pack. It explained that most of their green electricity was coming from a power station in Lincolnshire that burned biomass.

What kind? Fast growing coppiced willow? Miscanthus grass? Again with the 'nope'.

Remember how the BSE crisis meant those pellets made of ground up cattle couldn't be used as animal feed any more? The processing plants didn't stop making them. They simply started selling them as biomass.

Surely this was some squeamish stop-gap whilst the meat industry readjusted? Once more, nope.

Via - gadzooks! - Meat News I bring you this story of a brand new meat-fuelled power station being built in Scotland. [UPDATE: That Meat News page has been taken down, but here's the owner's announcement about the power plant]

Yet it must be said that there is some level at which it makes sense. I mean, the meat industry is producing the cows anyway, and rather than tipping the unwanted bits into landfills or somesuch, isn't it better to do something useful? The Scottish power plant - within the utterly fucking insane barbaric obscene world of modern food production - has a logic to it.

But doesn't this then prolong the obscene and unsustainable cattle farming by giving it higher dollar for the remains?

It's like like the unjoined-up thinking some veggies use to justify wearing leather because 'it's only a by-product'; it ignores the fact that slaughterhouses make about a fifth of their money from sale of hide. And I don't see those same veggies eating black pudding, which is only made from by-products.

But there's some bigger picture stuff to consider. Rather like the palm oil, we need to look at where we source our biomass; even if the cows are local, what are they fed on and where did it come from? Soya grown on ex-Amazon forest is widely used. Factor in not only the poor land use but the deforestation or other displacement of trees and it can't be a good thing.

I've been deep in there with climate change maths lately, and I'm sure there's some figures to be worked out.

Cattle are serious contributors to climate change. Their digestive systems release huge quantities of methane (which is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2). If a cow grazes, burps and farts for several years, what's the climate impact?

What is the energy derived from burning that cow, and how much CO2 does it save by not being a fossil source?

My guess is that the energy benefit is much, much less than the flatulence detriment. It's a whole new facet to the climate cost of meat.

And that's before we discuss what biomass crop could've been grown on the pasture if the cow hadn't been there, and how much more energy we'd have got from that. Surely a cow - which shits out most of the grass it eats - is less efficient than simply burning that grass directly.

What's the kilowatt hours per acre for cattle? What acreage would we need to power the UK with them? Again, I'm only guessing but I suspect the numbers would be ludicrous.

(And all this, of course, makes no mention of how being chopped up and burned is really nasty to the cow.)


Simon H said...

Your quip about vegetarians and leather assumes that all vegetarians are such because they're against the killing of animals. Personally I have no problem with leather, just so long as I don't have to eat it.

merrick said...

Simon, apart from allergy, why would any reason to be veggie proscribe meat but allow leather?

Simon H said...

Because you might not like animals and wish to remain uncontaminated by them.

merrick said...

Well OK, if that's your reason.

Personally, if I was averse to animals then I'd think twice about rubbing myself against the inside of their skin.

Mind you, I did have a friend who was veggie except for pig products. He felt compassion for the animals, but fuckin hated pigs and saw eating ham and bacon as a gleeful act of vengeance. Takes all sorts.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post, but I just I should draw your attention to something.

The cows producing methane story is a little disingenuous - which is why it's used by climate change deniers all the time to shift the blame from humans onto Chinese livestock.

1) Cows release methane into the atmosphere... but
2) Cows produce methane from carbon obtained by digesting grass... and
3) Grass grows by extracting carbon in the form of CO2 from the atmosphere.

If you think about it, this is common sense. The grass is not using any fossil fuel, and neither is the cow. The cow is theoretically carbon neutral, assuming it's fed on grass.

That's not to say it's ideal: there's clearly an issue there with the conversion of CO2 to methane (as well the conversion of acreage from forest to grass - and the farm machinery). I don't know if there's any way of assessing the exact impact per cow, but clearly cows aren't quite as bad as the emissions from their rear end would initially suggest.

merrick said...

Hi jungle,

your points are all reasonable ideas, but I'm afraid livestock are very much a big climate problem.

The grass does indeed absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. But it decays in the digestive system it is without oxygen. This means it produces methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

The IPCC say that over 20 years, methane is 62 times worse than CO2; 23 times over a century; over 500 years, 7 times worse. [the figure changes because methane breaks down faster than CO2]

Who said anything about livestock being Chinese? The Chinese diet is nothing like as beef and dairy heavy as the American or European one.

Oh, and it seems as if it might not be the rear end that emits much of the methane; recent research shows it's probably oral.

I go into the climate impact of meat in more detail here