The leather industry will come under attack once again on November 30, 2023, when COP28 starts in Dubai. Reducing methane emissions is expected to be a major theme and will create another opportunity for those campaigning against leather production.
For all of history, ruminant animals have eaten grass, produced milk and been part of a natural cycle of photosynthesis, where their methane breaks down in the atmosphere to create carbon dioxide, which is then used by the plants and grasses that they eat.
That neat balance changed when we started burning coal and oil, directly producing quantities of carbon dioxide which, unlike methane, builds up permanently in the atmosphere when overproduced. Around the mid-2000s, we began to see producers of coal, oil and gas fund lobbying companies to argue against global warming, pushing the blame for any problem onto methane from livestock.
As we know, this supposed science became embedded in the thinking and writing of animal rights and vegan lobbyists. The leather industry, which is reluctant to spend money on anything that looks or smells like marketing, found itself up against two powerful and very well-funded lobbies.
Problems at the top
Most fossil fuel producing states have a poor record of working towards other forms of economic development, despite the wealth fossil fuel has given them. Now we also have a bizarre situation where the President of COP28 is Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
Some of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) member states, including Russia, have said they will not support any restrictions on oil, gas or coal. Others are talking about “low carbon oil” – a misnomer. They are vying to produce fossil fuels with very low emissions in the extraction and use them to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
When producing low carbon fossil fuel of any sort, one large issue is the mostly unmeasured anthropogenic methane produced and released. We know more about it today thanks to satellite data and environmental groups undertaking local measurements at individual plants. It appears that the COP28 President recognises that this methane source must be reduced but the more likely outcome will be another attack on livestock.
The recent acquisition of Pioneer Natural Resources by Exxon Mobil in the U.S. fracking industry is an example where reducing methane will be complicated. Fracking is a very big producer of escaped methane, and it is hard to handle. Many other big oil producers will probably follow Russia – think of Venezuela, the troubled Mediterranean states and Iraq. In most of these countries, the capability to measure and deal with methane looks a long way off. In others, we might see some promising words but even suggesting the existence of “low carbon oil” says it all.
Very few authorities are listening
Nothing in the changing world order suggests apparent solutions. Sadly, very few authorities are listening. Global ruminant livestock numbers are not rising and most of the growth in global meat consumption is in non-ruminant white meat. With ruminants like cattle, huge reductions in methane can be made through dietary adjustments and biogas production, which is already being achieved in California. The picture is also improved when the more accurate GWP* figure is used instead of the misleading GWP100.
Since the turn of the century, the growth in atmospheric methane has mostly come from three sources: fossil fuels, waste dumps and melting permafrost. We must not overlook huge emissions from coal mining, particularly in uncontrollable open cast pits. Meanwhile, unmanaged municipal town waste dumps are a serious problem, with Iran one of the worst offenders. Finally, global warming has resulted in melting permafrost regions releasing big volumes of methane, which have been held there for tens of thousands of years.
Delegates from the leather industry have been present at recent COP meetings and the sector has released a widely supported manifesto explaining its true position – COP28 should repeat all that. One statement and a clutch of delegates does not change the world, but it means the leather industry is in the fray, getting to know leaders, influencers and journalists. This is already making a difference and we are steadily seeing more balanced articles and open challenges to foolish decisions like the recent announcement from Apple.
COP27 was notable for its immense oil lobby and a disappointing lack of progress. It is hard to be optimistic about COP28, but it is a moment to gather the leather industry troops and engage once more.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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