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Does The Journal need to 'factcheck' themselves?

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

Like many people in Ireland, I’m increasingly disappointed and sometimes downright furious about the quality of journalism from a number of sources and outlets. A recent ‘factcheck’ article from online news media ‘The Journal’ meets the latter criteria. They ‘debunked’ claims that cows are not the problem when it comes to climate change. The factcheck begins with this position:

A number of recent posts on social media have claimed that cows are “not the problem” when it comes to carbon emissions, compared to activities such as flying or driving. Posts have compared images of various activities and suggest that there should be less emphasis on emissions from cows because of the high emissions in other sectors.”

And they end with this statement:

“It is therefore inaccurate to suggest that cows are “not the problem” when it comes to either contributing to the climate crisis or the need to cut emissions. All sectors have to take action to reduce their emissions, including agriculture.”

In their journey between these 2 points and in building their case against agriculture, they cite many experts and reports along the way but is there information they left out? Are the quotes provided giving an incomplete and misleading picture? Are the conclusions drawn from what they provided accurate? Do they prove that cows are ‘the problem’ when it comes to contributing to the climate crisis or the need to cut emissions?

To say that cows are ‘the problem’ infers that cows are the primary source of warming emissions and a bigger contributor to warming than other sectors. That is certainly how the general public understand the conversation as presented by media outlets (including this article by The Journal), anti-farming environmentalist groups and our own government ministers. But is that true?

1) How did they position the experts they cited?

Compare the positioning of the scientists quoted:

“Climate expert and Emeritus Professor of Geography at Maynooth University John Sweeney”, “Myles Allen, a professor of geosystem science at Oxford University” and “Dr Clare Noone, postdoctoral researcher at Maynooth University”. When they refer to them throughout the article, they use “Professor John Sweeney’ but Professor Myles Allen is reduced to ‘Allen’.

This highly disrespectful referencing is, in my opinion, designed to diminish the importance of statements by one and elevate the statements of another. It is marketing spin and we in the Carbon Removals Action Group will no longer accept this manipulative behaviour from media, public figures or government.

Professor Myles Allen is a distinguished and world-renowned physicist making huge contributions towards the goal of ‘net zero’. His bio on the Oxford University website states: “Professor of Geosystem Science in the School of Geography and the Environment and Department of Physics, and Director of the Oxford Net Zero initiative. His research explores how human and natural influences contribute to observed and future climate change, including the attribution of individual weather events. Described as “the physicist behind Net Zero”, his research has emphasised that cumulative carbon dioxide emissions largely determine global mean surface warming, implying that the bulk of current fossil carbon reserves cannot be emitted if climate goals are to be met.

He served on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for its 3rd, 4th and 5th Assessments, and was a Coordinating Lead Author for its 2018 Special Report on 'the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels'. He founded the Climate citizen science project, the world’s largest climate modelling experiment.

In 2010 Professor Allen was awarded the Appleton Medal and Prize from the Institute of Physics 'for his important contributions to the detection and attribution of human influence on climate and quantifying uncertainty in climate predictions'.”

In short, this is a scientist that we can and should be paying a great deal of attention to and should certainly reference respectfully when we speak about him.

2) Were they selective in what they quoted?

They quoted Professor Myles Allen as saying in an AFP article: "Right now, global livestock numbers and associated methane emissions are going up, causing lots of global warming," Allen said. However, he said countries "don't need to reduce methane emissions to zero to stop methane causing any further global warming." However, they didn’t finish his quote: “The ECI graphs, for example, indicate that reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 0.3 percent per year would help level off their associated share of global warming.”

They could have more accurately represented his statement as “reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 0.3% per year completely neutralises their share of global warming”. They also left out this: “However, while Allen said the "contribution of cows to global warming is indeed well-documented," it is also "very badly misunderstood. While there is much that is misleading in this post, I can understand why farmers are frustrated because there is so much equally misleading information out there exaggerating their impact," he told AFP in an email.”

And this was omitted also from the AFP article they cited: "Agriculture clearly has an important role to play in meeting our climate goals," Allen said. "But as long as we continue to treat methane as 'equivalent' to a certain amount of CO2 when it clearly isn't, farmers will continue to feel unnecessarily threatened and misrepresented."

The Journal used this AFP article as a source for their ‘factcheck’ and they could have taken the opportunity to investigate what Professor Myles Allen meant by that and put forward a fair, independent and unbiased article that would have gone a long way to bridging the gaps in information that are leading to the demonisation of farmers in our media. Instead, they chose to perpetuate it and we should be asking - why?

They also quoted a recent report from the IPCC as saying: “The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) outlined that rapid changes in emissions like methane can result in “rapid climate effects” but conveniently left out other information included in that report: “Expressing methane emissions as CO2-equivalent using GWP100 (the standard method) overstates the effect of constant methane emissions (methane from cattle) on global temperature by a factor of 3 to 4, while understating the effect of any new methane emission source (mining and fossil fuel production) by a factor of 4 to 5over the 20 years following the introduction of the new source”.

3) Are cows really ‘the problem’?

Arguably, if The Journal had any intention of tackling this question fairly, they would have paid attention to the debate on the calculation of methane emissions in the Oireachtas in July of this year in which it became clear that the scientists who are at the leading edge of net-zero actions see that farmers are being treated unfairly in the way information about emissions are being measured and presented to the public.

Let’s take a look at what some of the top climate scientists and government officials had to say about whether cows are ‘the problem’ and the grievances farmers have with how they are presented in the public debate:

Professor Myles Allen:

“If you reduce a herd, it has the same impact on global temperature as planting a lot of trees, actively taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. That is why I say that I do not understand why there needs to be a fight over this because actually, that is a good thing. It is simply not acknowledged in the way that we characterise methane’s impact at the moment. If it were acknowledged it might go quite a long way to diffuse farmers’ concerns. I can understand that farmers are concerned if they are being asked to reduce global temperatures without that service being acknowledged, whereas if you calculated the impact of interventions on global temperatures, it would be acknowledged. That does not dictate policy, I should stress, it just acknowledges the outcome of policy.”

“I appreciate that we are out of time but I wish to emphasise again that the debate on methane globally has to be kept in perspective. Even if we were to eliminate methane emissions from the entire ruminant herd worldwide we would shave a few hundredths of a degree off global temperatures.....That is the global number. That is a few years of fossil fuelled warming. The elephant in the corner is the increase in global temperatures due to the rates of CO2 from fossil fuels.”

“Unfortunately, in our formal reporting requirements that we place on farmers and countries reporting to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, we are still using this old and, frankly, not fit for purpose metric of CO2 equivalent emissions, which does not reflect the impact of methane emissions on global temperature.....I am not suggesting that Ireland abandon that tool. It is embedded in international policy, and I am sure Ireland will carry on using it because everybody else uses it too. What I am suggesting, however, is that reporting requirements be added in. That could even be at farm level. Mr. Hourigan could work out with a pocket calculator his impact on global temperatures. Those reporting requirements would assist in targeting policies to maximise the reduction in global temperature. That is what we are trying to do. We are trying to stop global warming. That is what we should focus policy on."

"My response to the Deputy’s many questions is to document and report the impact of policies and emissions on global temperatures. That would be a very easy innovation to do and it is something the Climate Change Advisory Council can already do. If that was introduced into the conversation, it would do a great deal to defuse the tension between the farming community and the Government on this issue.”

Excerpt from the technical note he provided to the Committee: “Agriculture and land-use cannot be relied upon to compensate indefinitely for warming due to continued fossil fuel use….so, one thing Ireland could do immediately would be to introduce the concept of “geological net-zero’ into your climate goals, a target year beyond which you will no longer rely on agriculture, forestry and the natural world to offset fossil-origin CO2 and start monitoring progress towards it. This might go a long way to reassure farmers that they will not be expected to compensate indefinitely for continued fossil fuel use in other sectors.”

Deputy Edwina Love (Department of Agriculture):

“A 30% reduction in methane was also referenced as a likely required pathway by the Climate Change Advisory Council. This must be benchmarked against the fact that a 3% reduction in methane emissions from the Irish livestock herd over the decade would ensure no additional global warming arises from the methane produced by it.......Notwithstanding, Ireland will only achieve climate-neutral status by 2050 through land-use removals provided from trees and soils and these removals will be delivered by the agriculture and land-use sector. Similarly, on the energy side, I have outlined the significant contribution that the sector will make to decarbonising the energy system.”

Dr Frank Mitloehner (Professor and air quality specialist in cooperative extension in the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis, California):

“The Deputy asked whether there have been spikes in methane emissions. Up until 2006, there was a plateauing of methane in the United States. This went on for some time. In 2006, there was a sudden uptick in methane. We wondered how that could be. We looked at all the different sources of methane, including livestock, rice paddies, fossil fuel and everything else. The cattle herd had not changed. The livestock sector did not suddenly emit far more than it did prior to 2006. We found that it was the onset of fracking - the extraction of fossil fuels using the fracking method - in 2006 that was largely responsible for the spikes that followed.”

Professor Peter Thorne (Professor in Physical Geography (Climate Change) at Maynooth University in Ireland and Director of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research UnitS group (ICARUS), Chair of the International Surface Temperature Initiative, Co-chair of the GCOS Working Group on the Global Climate Observing System Reference Upper Air Network (GRUAN), Lead Author on 5th Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Member of the Climate Change Advisory Council of Ireland):

“In some sense, why methane is important now is that we are so close to 1.5°C. We prevaricated, waited and wanted to continue to burn fossil fuels for so long that if we are to keep to 1.5°C we now have little option but to play with the methane in addition to the longer-lived greenhouse gases to attain that effort.”

“However, as we have repeatedly stated, there is a difference between fossil methane and biogenic methane. The biogenic methane picks up the carbon from the active component of the carbon cycle, so it does not do very long-term harm. It does harm, relative to not having that emission, for the timeframe that the methane is in the atmosphere, but it does no additional harm afterwards. Fossil methane does harm.”

“The Deputy made the point that we need to get away from the “them and us” approach and stop finger-pointing at farmers. I absolutely agree. I do not believe for a moment that the agricultural community is deliberately trying to do harm to the environment. Why would they? They rely upon the environment for their jobs. They do not want to leave their farms in a worse state. It is not all down to methane emissions. The vast bulk of the warming to date is down to the burning and extraction of fossil fuels. That is doing harm.”

“That is why we need to look at all sectors and everybody needs to play their part. I will go back to my opening remark. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, the real risk is that for 97% of the population who are not farmers, we are making this somebody else’s problem. It is not somebody else’s problem; it is all of our problem. We need to fundamentally get to net-zero CO2 emissions. Otherwise, it is game over. We are not going to stop the warming at any warming level unless and until we get to net-zero CO2. I ask members and anyone watching the debate not to let a discussion on methane emissions disabuse them of the notion that we must reduce CO2 to net-zero. That is the absolute imperative.”

What conclusion should be drawn from these statements?

Do any of the statements above suggest that these scientists and government ministers see cows as being ‘the problem’? While we acknowledge the small contribution to warming by cattle, every one of these statements supports the view that agriculture is the roadmap to providing solutions to ‘the problem’. Deputy Edwina Love has clearly indicated that this is acknowledged and part of agricultural policy already. Amazing that no minister has come out to tell the public that.

In that session, Deputy Matt Carthy asked - “Am I correct in deducing that, essentially, the premise is that farming per se may not have been the cause of the problem but is very much an immediate solution that is required?”

He is correct. Agriculture’s main contribution to climate change will be to take on responsibility for undoing damage we didn’t do because we are the only ones who can. The government are requiring us to make sacrifices to our livelihoods, land, private property rights and take on even more emissions from other sectors so that they can reduce theirs.

The Journal is doing a massive disservice to the people of Ireland in their continuing demonisation of farmers who are absolutely willing in many ways to take on the role needed of us. But we won’t do so if we are constantly being misrepresented and defamed by our government, our media and public figures. We won’t be bullied by marketing spin and reporting sleight of hand, positioned as the ‘biggest emitters’ while being forced to be the ‘biggest removers’ with no credit for it.

Our conclusion on examining the evidence (and we accept entirely that we are biased in favour of farming) is that it is highly accurate to say that “cows are not the problem when it comes to contributing to the climate crisis or the need to cut emissions”. We would go further and say that “agriculture, as a whole, is not the problem when it comes to contributing to the climate crisis and the need to cut emissions”.

We are not causing global warming to any significant degree. Unlike other sectors, we are not being asked to reduce our contribution to warming but rather being asked to make up for the warming that other sectors will continue to do.

It is undeniable that the position of the world’s leading scientists and the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change is that the contribution of agriculture to global warming has been significantly overstated, is small and that cuts made to agricultural emissions will, in large part, induce global cooling, helping to offset what the other sectors are still doing that is actively causing global warming. Can the same be said for other sectors?

We are not ‘the problem’. We are ‘the solution’. And we are entitled to be represented accurately. Do better.

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