What is the greenwashing trick?
The industrial livestock industry claims that collecting biogas produced by raising animals for meat and dairy consumption reduces emissions. They might say that they are “reducing on-farm emissions” or that they are producing “renewable energy.”
While biogas can be used to power vehicles and heat homes, it still emits carbon when it is burned, and therefore is not completely eliminating emissions stemming from animal agriculture. Encouraging companies to produce biogas creates the wrong incentive: if businesses receive money for producing biogas, it doesn’t incentivize transformation of the sector, and instead encourages business as usual.
Together, Big Oil and Big Livestock claim that biogas is a “renewable” source of energy. They use biogas in their operations and claim that using biogas will help them meet their climate targets. But factory farmed gas is not renewable – it continues to incentivise factory farming, which degrades the environment by contributing to numerous problems with air pollution, deforestation, soil health and more.
How is this trick used?
Industrial livestock operations collect animal and other organic waste in an anaerobic digester (also known as a biogas digester or methane digester). As the organic matter decays, it creates a gas that is a mixture of methane, carbon dioxide, and other trace gases, some of which can be harmful to our health (like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide).
When the resulting “biogas” is burned, it releases carbon dioxide – so while capturing biogas may prevent methane from animal manure and other waste from directly leaking into the atmosphere, carbon is still being released in the process. And capturing biogas does nothing to address the methane emitted by livestock through their digestion, known as their enteric emissions.
Companies may use biogas to replace fossil fuels in their own operations, i.e. in farming vehicles, and will sell biogas to other businesses for heating and cooking as a replacement for “natural” gas (methane gas that is collected via drilling or fracking).
Why is this bad for the climate crisis?
Capturing biogas does not completely reduce emissions from industrial animal agriculture – it merely transforms some of the methane produced by livestock into carbon dioxide.
Biogas is also very costly to scale; anaerobic digesters are expensive to build and maintain, and are often heavily subsidised by governments because they are too costly an investment for individual farmers.
Methane can also leak from the biogas lagoons and digesters that are supposed to contain it, releasing those “captured” emissions back into the atmosphere, contributing to global heating.
It is also difficult to track how many emissions are being “avoided” by creating biogas, and companies may be claiming unverifiable (and therefore unsubstantiated) emissions reductions to make their operations look greener than they really are.
Encouraging companies to produce biogas creates the wrong incentive, in terms of reducing climate impact. If businesses receive money for producing biogas, it doesn’t incentivize transformation of the sector, and instead encourages business as usual.