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  • Writer's pictureLuiza Bruscato

New methane emission targets increase pressure on Brazil.

Brazil is the fifth largest emitter of the gas, which gained prominence in the discussions at COP26.

Methane has transitioned from a supporting role to a protagonist in the climate change discussion at COP26, the UN conference on the topic taking place in Glasgow, Scotland, until November 12.

On Tuesday (2), Brazil signed the Global Methane Pledge during the meeting, joining 96 countries committed to reducing global gas emissions by 30% by 2030, compared to 2020 levels.

The new agreement adds extra pressure on Brazil's environmental policy and agribusiness, which is the fifth largest emitter of methane in the world.

Although methane is the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in terms of volume, behind carbon dioxide, it is capable of warming the atmosphere 28 times more than the same volume of CO2.

However, its elimination is faster: the half-life of methane—the time for half of the emitted volume to decompose in the atmosphere—is about 12 years. In contrast, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, two other major greenhouse gases, take from 100 to 10,000 years to stop warming the planet.

Therefore, the pollutant has become the gas of the moment. Its reduction is one of the fastest strategies to try to keep the planet within the 1.5°C warming target set in the Paris Agreement, established during COP21 in 2015.

Reducing gas levels is also the first of the six points in the action plan developed by the Energy Transitions Commission, a global coalition of energy sector leaders.

The group's goals include reducing emissions by up to 60% in sectors such as fossil fuels.

The high targets set by the sector and the agreement sealed at COP26 among nations stem from the realization that the planet is approaching a "point of no return" on climate, as defined by US President Joe Biden in a statement in September announcing the US and European Union's accession to the Global Methane Pledge, of which Brazil is now a part.

"The major transformations of the planet's economic systems have to happen in this decade. Reducing methane is the fastest way to slow down the Earth's warming,’’ says climatologist Carlos Nobre.

Previously known as swamp gas, methane is a flammable compound produced in oxygen-poor environments through fermentation by bacteria. It is the main component of natural gas and also appears, in smaller proportions, in processes such as deforestation.

In Brazil, agriculture was responsible for 73% of the gas released between 1990 and 2019, according to the Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Removals Estimation System—an initiative by the Climate Observatory NGO.

Gas emitted in pastures is the main culprit. The substance is released into the air during the digestion of ruminants, such as cattle and goats, mainly in the form of belches. It is also expelled through flatulence and from feces.

In 2020, Brazil had the world's largest cattle herd, with 218 million head, according to IBGE. The more of these animals, the more methane is produced.

Adhering to the new global agreement limiting gas emissions is expected to directly affect Brazil's agribusiness industry and add pressure on the environmental policy of President Jair Bolsonaro's government, amidst a context of strained international relations due to record-breaking Amazon deforestation this year.

"The new methane restrictions may have significant implications. Brazil has to come to the negotiation table [of international negotiations like COP26] responsibly,’’ says Paulo Artaxo, a physicist at USP (University of São Paulo) and member of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the UN)

For the expert, new mitigation techniques do not promote a significant reduction of the gas in the atmosphere. "The solution is to eat less meat,’’ he says.

Recommendations for changes in the population's diet also emerged during the drafting of the IPCC's sixth report, a document that serves as the basis for the current discussions at COP26. In the debates, Brazil opposed recommendations to reduce meat consumption and rebutted criticisms of the current administration's environmental policy.

Luiza Bruscato, executive manager of the Sustainable Livestock Working Group, a non-governmental organization that brings together rural producers and industry giants like JBS and Santander, says Brazilian livestock farming is aligned with the best scientific practices.

JBS, Marfrig, and Minerva Foods, the country's three largest meatpacking companies and associated with the entity, announced this year their commitment to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.

The three companies, along with BR Foods, were among the 20 meatpacking plants in the world that emitted the most greenhouse gases in 2016, according to a report by the German foundation Heinrich Boll Stiftung released in September.

Bruscato says agribusiness companies are now seeking ways to standardize emission data, design indicators, and harmonize sector goals together. "Brazilian livestock farming has the potential to be the most sustainable in the world."

Some researchers in the field also argue that adopting sustainable actions to reduce methane emissions from Brazilian livestock farming is possible. Among the cited alternatives are the restoration

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