Thursday

26th Jan 2023

Opinion

Beware the 'biomethane is green gas' hot-air PR trick

  • Factory farm gas is a crucial PR tool used by the industrial livestock industry to argue that livestock numbers do not need to be reduced because this tech fix makes the industry green (Photo: Stijn te Strake)
Listen to article

EU proposals to expand 'green gas' or 'biomethane', which the European Parliament will vote on in its revision of the Renewable Energy Directive next week (13 September), could expand the industry indiscriminately and have damaging effects.

Biomethane could supplant better alternatives, including dietary change, food waste prevention, afforestation, plant-based protein production and renewable electricity.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

The production of biomethane begins when organic materials ('feedstocks') such as bioenergy crops, food waste and manure are broken down by microorganisms through anaerobic digestion.

This produces biogas and nutrient-rich digestate fertiliser. Biogas can be further refined into biomethane, which can then be injected into the gas grid for heating or used as biofuel for transport.

There are many problems with biomethane.

For instance, the fossil gas industry frequently champions biomethane and hydrogen as a substitute for electrification, so gas infrastructure can keep supplying fossil gas in the meantime. But wind and solar produce significantly lower emissions and are cheaper.

Moreover, promising research shows that electrification of even heavy goods vehicles and tractors is possible.

The digestate fertiliser produced from anaerobic digestion has high nitrogen content, so risks polluting water and degrading soil health. We should ensure that anaerobic digestion plants build in a post-composting step, as required in Italy.

Using bioenergy crops, like maize or grass to feed digestors is a poor use of land in terms of energy generation, emissions mitigation and food security. Solar PV currently generates 12–18 times more energy per hectare than maize or grass grown for anaerobic digestion.

Planting trees saves 11.5 times more emissions per hectare than growing grass as a bioenergy crop.

Additionally, land could be better used to grow food for human consumption, particularly as the war in Ukraine threatens food security. Moreover, maize is terrible for soil — in the UK, 75 percent of sites growing maize show high or severe levels of soil erosion.

Prevention is better than cure

While food waste and manure are promoted as sustainable alternatives to feed digestors, here, too, there are significant problems. Preventing food waste saves approximately nine times more emissions than sending it to an anaerobic digestor, per average tonne of food waste — and 40 times more when spared grassland is instead afforested.

Sending food waste to animal feed saves nearly three times the emissions as sending it to anaerobic digestion — and spares additional cropland for food production.

The European Environmental Bureau has estimated that halving EU food waste by 2030 would save 4.7 million hectares of agricultural land.

While sending unavoidable food waste to anaerobic digestion or composting instead of incineration or landfill is preferable, our priority should always be prevention.

We need to design policy ensuring digestors do not lower waste disposal costs and inadvertently disincentivise food waste prevention.

At best, digestors only mitigate some emissions from manure — but this is only a fraction of industrial livestock's emissions, which originate from enteric fermentation (burps and farts), animal feed and pressures for land use change like deforestation. At worst, digestors actively help perpetuate and grow this polluting industry.

PR tool

Factory farm gas is a crucial PR tool used by the industrial livestock industry to argue that livestock numbers do not need to be reduced because this tech fix makes the industry green. Badly-designed incentives and subsidies for digestors can actually facilitate the expansion of factory farming.

Take, for instance, Northern Ireland's Going for Growth strategy to expand pig and poultry production. By highly subsidising digestors, the government was able to provide an outlet for all the extra animal waste, lower waste disposal costs, help factory farms gain planning permission, and bypass nitrate regulations.

Instead of paying for their chicken litter to be disposed of, at up to £90 [€150] per tonne, producers were paid for their wastes by the digestors. By 2020, Northern Ireland produced 41 percent more pigs and 30 percent more chickens than in 2013, mainly in intensive farming facilities.

Biomethane from digestors can still be scaled up to play an important role in the EU's energy mix, as long as it stays within its sustainable niche — as laid out in Feedback's Green Gas Without the Hot Air report.

Biomethane can be valuably produced from unavoidable wastes since some sectors will take time to electrify. However, better alternatives to anaerobic digestion should be prioritised.

This means a just transition to lower meat diets, halving food waste by 2030, electrification of heat and transport powered by wind and solar, and reducing energy demand through insulation and public transport. Incentives for biomethane production should be designed to support these objectives, not replace or undermine them.

Specifically, in the European Parliament vote on 13 September policymakers should reconsider the 35 billion cubic meters (bcm) target for biomethane, which is excessive and unrealistic, set strict sustainability criteria to ensure against the use of bioenergy crops as feedstocks for digestors, and ensure that waste prevention and industrial livestock reduction are prioritised.

Author bio

Martin Bowman is the senior policy and campaigns manager at Feedback, a NGO focussing on a sustainable food system.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

EU Commission methane plan lacks binding agriculture targets

The new European Commission strategy on slashing methane emissions focuses first on obtaining better data. Critics say it is a missed opportunity to impose targets and other binding measures on agriculture, the largest single emitter.

More countries join EU and US-led methane pledge

Two dozen countries have joined the US-and EU-led initiative to reduce global methane emissions, as momentum builds ahead of the UN climate change conference in Glasgow. Delivering on this pledge could reduce global warming by 0.2 degrees by 2050.

MEPs snub regulation of cow methane

Methane is second most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide. But MEPs voted to exclude "enteric methane," which is 80 to 85 percent of agriculture's share of emissions.

Greece's spy scandal must shake us out of complacency

The director of Amnesty International Greece on the political spying scandal that now threatens to bring down prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Activists and NGO staff work with the constant fear that they are being spied on.

Latest News

  1. Official: EU parliament's weak internal rule-making body leads to 'culture of impunity'
  2. Red tape border logjam for EU's 1.3m 'frontier workers'
  3. Greece's spy scandal must shake us out of complacency
  4. Greek government in no-confidence vote over spying scandal
  5. The legal battle for justice against Kremlin's 'untouchables'
  6. UAE's fossil-fuelled high-tech mirage of a green future
  7. MEP harassment case sheds light on flimsy support for victims
  8. Big Agri's EU lobbying playbook on 'hunger' and a 'refugee crisis'

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual & Reproductive Rights (EPF)Launch of the EPF Contraception Policy Atlas Europe 2023. 8th February. Register now.
  2. Europan Patent OfficeHydrogen patents for a clean energy future: A global trend analysis of innovation along hydrogen value chains
  3. Forum EuropeConnecting the World from the Skies calls for global cooperation in NTN rollout
  4. EFBWWCouncil issues disappointing position ignoring the threats posed by asbestos
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersLarge Nordic youth delegation at COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  2. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  3. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  4. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos
  5. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022
  6. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us