“Methane is like a punch to the face”

Oxford Real Farming Conference is,
yet again, a lively event.

6th January 2020


This January, 3Keelers Catherine McCosker and Tom Curtis attended the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). Amidst a climate crisis, with Brexit looming, and 2019 being declared ‘the year of the vegan’, it was always going to be a lively event. The 1,000 plus attendees from industry, government and NGOs were not disappointed! The mighty sound of Taiko drummed up enthusiasm from the opening plenary and set the rhythm of the day.

Catherine leads 3Keel’s Resilient Agriculture practice area, and Tom leads 3Keel’s work on Landscape Enterprise Networks (LENs), which aims to make landscapes more receptive to the needs of businesses and societies.  Here they share each of their highlights of the event.

Hotbed of practical, creative, and often radical ideas

Tom has been attending and contributing as speaker and session chair at the ORFC since it started, in 2010.  This year he chaired a session on ‘securing land for the common good’, which featured speakers from the Soil Association Land Trust (where Tom is Chair of Trustees), the owner of the Chettle Estate, and the Midlands Director of the National Trust.

“Although on the face of it, this could sound like an abstract conversation, in fact it cuts to the heart of many of the issues we work on with land, and how it connects to the economy and society” says Tom.  “In very practical terms, when businesses or government seek to procure outcomes, such as carbon sequestration, water catchment management, supply chain resilience, public access, or biodiversity, they need to have confidence that the measures they pay for this year won’t be ploughed up in five, ten, or even thirty years time.  This can be difficult to achieve through straightforward contracting, and so in our session we explored the different mechanisms and opportunities for ‘putting land on a long-term footing’.  This spanned existing tenancy, leasing and contracting arrangements, through to the potential new provision for conversation covenants included in upcoming legislation.  We covered the latter issue in a more ‘deep dive’ follow- on session at the conference with invited speakers”.

Tom also enjoyed the wider conference. “The conference provided its ever-evolving hot-bed of practical, creative, and often radical ideas.  Given the challenges we face as a society with climate change and the breakdown of natural systems, it would be a mistake to dismiss the ORFC as niche.  It’s out of this sort of forum that important new innovation will emerge”.

A full Oxford Town Hall and St Aldates Centre provided a great setting for ORFC 2020


The GWP* debate (aka accounting for methane in the atmosphere)

A highlight for Catherine was a panel discussion on ruminant methane. The current “GWP100” metric used in greenhouse gas accounting calculates how much warming will occur from gases in the atmosphere such as methane and carbon dioxide over the next 100 years. It converts each greenhouse gas (methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide) into “carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)” so that we can have a consistent single metric to benchmark emissions and mitigation efforts against.

However some Oxford researchers now argue that this initial attempt at a universal metric – GWP100 – masks some of the key differences between the impact of methane and the other gases, with important implications for policy and mitigation programmes.

The debate centres on GWP100 leading to disproportionate focus on mitigating methane, relative to carbon dioxide. While methane is in the atmosphere its warming effect per molecule is much more intense than carbon dioxide’s – however it is in the atmosphere for much less time than CO2. Methane disappears after approximately 12 years, whereas a significant proportion of CO2 released due to fossil fuel combustion is expected to remain in the atmosphere for more than 1,000 years. This means that each molecule of CO2 released into the atmosphere today is piling onto existing CO2 in the atmosphere and continuing to increase warming, even if the absolute amount of CO2 emissions decrease year on year. On the other hand, if – and it’s a very big if! – methane emissions were levelled off now with no more rises, no additional warming would occur – and in fact some cooling could occur. The implications of this are most important for setting policies and targets on climate mitigation. The researchers have developed a new metric (called GWP*) that is more useful for assessing future warming trajectories and, they argue, is therefore more helpful in assessing the merits of different options for mitigation.

It’s important to note that this science behind this is not new, and hasn’t changed. The debate is around the metrics we use to account for the science, and to develop policy and analysis with.

Of course this doesn’t mean that we don’t need to continue to look at reducing ruminant emissions. Just as a levelling of methane emissions would end their warming effect, a reduction in methane emissions would lead to an immediate cooling effect, because the methane currently dissipating in the atmosphere would not be replaced. The same would not be achieved by a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, which would simply result in an eventual levelling off of existing warming. However, it is possible to imagine a future with some level of sustainable ruminant production (especially when also considering the role of livestock in sustainable agro-ecological systems with carbon storage potential), which is not the case for the burning of fossil fuels.”

The amazing Taiko drummers made for a very exciting event

ORFC attracts the real enthusiasts and innovators in the UK ag sector, which makes it ‘must go’ event for me every year