News last update:6 Aug 2012

Warming law applies pressure to industries

California's landmark law to drastically cut greenhouse gases could boost the state's economy or make it even more expensive to live in California. It may do both.

The Global Warming Solutions Act, which drew international attention when it became law in September, is vague on details about how the state must cut emissions that cause the planet to warm - most notably carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Still, the act portends unprecedented change in the ways Californians live and work, probably affecting the power that we use, the cars we buy and how our food is grown.

The act calls for the state to first ratchet its emissions back to 1990 levels -- the same target in the Kyoto Protocol, a seminal environmental treaty so far spurned by the federal government. By 2050 emissions would have to be cut by 80% under the 1990 levels. The law must still survive various court challenges.

Determining which industries will carry the biggest burden is the job of the California Air Resources Board. The general idea is to employ a market-based approach that rewards businesses for cutting emissions while penalizing others that fail to meet target levels. The industries that have the most to gain or lose include automobile makers, energy companies, the forestry sector and farmers.

The trading of "carbon credits" from one business to another is essential to the legislation. Companies that cut their emissions can sell those "credits" to other polluting companies. Companies can trade credits within California as well as with companies in the United Kingdom and continental Europe.

Growing green
The forestry sector and agriculture industry ultimately will figure heavily in implementation of the new law, for the simple reason that plants pull greenhouse gases from the air and store it in woody tissue.

Agriculture is California's biggest business and a significant producer of greenhouse gases. Cows belch vast quantities of methane. Ploughing releases nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. Both compounds are potent greenhouse gases. Methane traps heat 30 times more effectively than carbon dioxide, while nitrous oxide is 300 times more efficient.

Frank Mitloehner, an associate professor of animal science at UC Davis and the director of the university's Agricultural Air Quality Center, said each of California's 3.4 million dairy cattle emit between 150 to 200 kg of methane a year. That's roughly the equivalent of emissions from up to 4 million cars.

Special feed additives
Still, Mitloehner said, ridding the state of its dairy cows isn't the best way to cut greenhouse gases. Rather, he said, methane levels can be lowered by changing the dairy cows' diet. Special feed additives, he said, are effective in curtailing the growth of methanogens - the bacteria that produce methane - in the bovine gut. The fewer methanogens, the less methane.

Livestock can also help in the fight against global warming, Mitloehner said, given that they consume as well as release carbon. "Virtually all the food byproducts produced by Central Valley agriculture - nut husks, waste grain, cottonseed - end up as commercial cattle feed," Mitloehner said. "If it wasn't going to the cattle, it would be rotting on the ground or in a landfill, releasing carbon dioxide and methane."

And increasingly, dairy farmers are capturing the methane their cows produce by containing the manure in tanks; the gas is then burned to produce electricity for farm needs. That's another way that farmers could acquire sellable carbon credits.

In fact, Mitloehner said, agriculture in general constitutes a major carbon sink - every green growing thing on a commercial farm, from an almond tree to a lettuce seedling, is pulling carbon from the air.

No one has done the math yet, Mitloehner said, to quantify agriculture's role as both a reservoir and emitter of greenhouse gases. So it's unclear how much the new law will cost growers - or whether farmers stand to make substantial profits. And until such calculations are done, farmers will remain wary of the act.

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