OBWOGO: Government Can Reduce Greenhouse Gases Without Punishing Car Owners

Dr Subiri Obwogo • 17 June 2019
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To promote use of clean energy, the government proposed in this year’s budget to reduce excise duty on motor vehicles fully powered by electricity to 10 percent. It will also scrap import duty on raw timber and VAT on plastic recycling plants, among other measures. 

But then, if the minister wants to make a dent on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and global warming, it must look elsewhere.

When thinking about GHG emissions and global warming, it’s important to think about what we eat (eggs, meat and dairy), where we sleep and how we travel. 

You see, transportation is responsible for only 14 percent of global GHG emissions and although investing in low-emission cars is a good idea, these account for only a half of the transportation-related emissions; airplanes, cargo ships and trucks make up the other.  In fact, agriculture (24 percent) and electricity (25 percent) are responsible for half of all emissions. Manufacturing and buildings account for 21, and 6 percent respectively.

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In particular, agricultural activities such as deforestation, land use practices and keeping animals are a major source of GHG emissions, mainly carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.

The fact is agriculture is both a source (contributor) and sink (net withdrawal) for GHG.  Most agricultural emissions originate from four sources: soil management, enteric fermentation, energy use, and manure management.  Enteric fermentation is a natural process of ruminant digestion where microbes in the rumen— the first part of four-compartment animal stomachs such as cattle— break down feed producing methane.

In animal production, most emissions— in form of methane— are from cattle (beef followed by dairy). It’s estimated that if cattle were a country, they’d be the third-largest emitter of GHG (5 Gigatons per year) after China and USA that emit 10.2 and 5.3 Gigatons of CO2 annually respectively (see graph below). While most of the methane from poultry and swine production originates from manure (storage and application), enteric fermentation is the main source of methane in dairy and beef production.

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The number and size (weight) of cattle matters. For example, compared to Ireland with 1.4 million cows producing 6.4 billion litres of milk annually, Kenya’s 4.2 million cows produce a mere 5.2 billion litres.

If you think about it, most of our cattle simply exist to fart and belch out lethal GHG into the atmosphere with nothing to show for in terms of meat and milk production. One solution is to improve growth rate and feed conversion efficiency of animal production systems through genetic selection and improved nutrition.

Using synthetic (nitrogenous) or organic (animal manure) fertiliser to improve soil fertility has its downside as both release another lethal GHG— nitrous oxide— when broken down by microbes in the soil. Nitrous oxide is one of the most potent GHG with 310 times greater global warming potential when compared to CO2.

Another area to look at is soil management, land and forestry practices. Changes in land use and forestry practices can either emit CO2 or act as a sink. Scientists know that soils holds three times as much carbon as the atmosphere meaning there’s more carbon in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined.

About 83 percent of Africans in rural areas depend on soil/ land for their livelihood. As such, when a forest is converted into cropland, or turned into charcoal and wood fuel, all the stored carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

In fact, deforestation alone is responsible for 11 percent of all global GHG emissions. Another thing is that because forests and grasslands act as carbon sinks, clearing them reduces the planet’s capacity to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

Under the watch of this government, an estimated 222,000 acres of Mau Forest complex, the largest closed-canopy in Kenya, which also doubles as the largest indigenous montane forest in East Africa and water tower in Rift Valley and Western region, have been destroyed. The excisions and unplanned settlements were approved by the government in 2001.

In case you’re wondering like me why the taxman can’t get his facts right on such a mundane subject like climate change and global warming, I’ve a clue. One answer is that many people who talk about global warming have never read a serious book or article on this subject. But just to be fair, this quote suffices, “If all I have is hammer, every problem certainly looks like a nail”.

The bottomline line is this: If we all knew our carbon footprint (energy use) and set daily goals such as opting for public transport, switching off unnecessary lights or the refrigerator, the world would be a better place. Switching to cleaner sources of energy such as solar, wind, biomass and geothermal is needed.