The Methane Majors: A Q&A with LEAP’s Daina Bray and Thomas Poston ’24

Dania Bray and Thomas Poston headshots
Dania Bray and Thomas Poston ’24 are co-authors of “The Methane Majors: Climate Change & Animal Agriculture in U.S. Courts.”

A new study by Daina Bray and Thomas Poston ’24 of the Law, Ethics & Animals Program (LEAP) at Yale Law School examines legal challenges to major animal agriculture firms’ contributions to climate change. The article, “The Methane Majors: Climate Change & Animal Agriculture in U.S. Courts,” was published in the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law on April 1. Bray and Poston will present their paper at the journal’s annual symposium on April 18.

Bray is a Clinical Lecturer and Senior Research Scholar at Yale Law School and Project Manager of the Climate Change & Animal Agriculture Litigation Initiative at LEAP and Thomas Poston ’24 is a LEAP Student Fellow

LEAP Postgraduate Fellow Laurie Sellars spoke with Bray and Poston about their research.

Who are the “Methane Majors”?

Bray: We use the term “Methane Majors” to describe the dominant participants in an industry — animal agriculture — that is responsible for nearly one-third of all anthropogenic methane emissions. It’s a nod to the scholar Richard Heede’s groundbreaking work demonstrating that just 90 producers of oil, coal, natural gas, and cement — the “Carbon Majors” — contributed almost two-thirds of carbon dioxide and methane emissions from fossil fuel and cement between 1751 and 2010. More recent research, including important work by the Changing Markets Foundation and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, suggests that a handful of meat and dairy companies play a similarly outsized role in methane emissions.

Heede’s work is often credited with facilitating a rise in climate change litigation seeking to hold particular Carbon Majors accountable for their contributions to climate change. Our research considers whether something similar might now unfold with respect to the major players in animal agriculture. The industry likely accounts for nearly 15 to 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Much of those emissions are methane, which is a climate “super-pollutant” significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.

Scientists, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), say that slowing warming in the near term will require mitigating methane emissions, not just carbon dioxide. But whether one looks at government regulation, public advocacy, or litigation, animal agriculture long seemed to avoid the spotlight, relative to, for example, fossil fuels. We’ve identified an emerging trend of litigation that departs from this status quo and turns squarely toward emissions linked to animal agriculture.

You surveyed legal challenges to animal agriculture’s climate impact from around the world. What strategies did you document and in which parts of the world?

Poston: Some of the earliest challenges we’ve documented are consumer protection cases alleging that a meat or dairy firm has misrepresented the emissions associated with its products. Just last month, in a case brought in 2021, a Danish appellate court held that a “climate-controlled pig” marketing campaign by Danish Crown, the EU’s largest pork producer, was unlawfully misleading. In significant U.S. news, the New York Attorney General sued the major meat company JBS in February on behalf of the people of New York, arguing that its public net-zero commitment is misleading and violates consumer protection law.

We’re also tracking a lawsuit brought by a Māori advocate in New Zealand against that country’s seven largest greenhouse gas emitters — including Fonterra, one of the world’s largest dairy companies — which the New Zealand Supreme Court recently decided could proceed toward trial. The lawsuit is based in tort law, which makes it an interesting case to watch as we consider the continued potential of the common law, and courts in general, to address new harms like climate change.

To touch on just a few more examples: where relevant statutes are in place, as in France, some suits allege that either animal agriculture firms or the banks that finance them have failed to fulfill their due diligence obligations with respect to deforestation and other abuses in their supply chains. Finally, and especially in the United States, there’s a significant class of cases —again with analogues in the fossil-fuel context — that raise government responsibility for animal agriculture emissions through challenges to various forms of industry support, including permitting and public land leasing.

What avenues do you see as available to those seeking to hold the Methane Majors accountable in U.S. courts? Are there any strategies that seem particularly promising based on your research?

Poston: Our work has identified a wide range of possibilities that reflect the kinds of cases brought elsewhere, as well as opportunities particular to the U.S. context. These include consumer protection, tort, financial theories, public trust and other claims directed at government, and cross-border approaches. That said, there are so many variables that determine the efficacy of a given suit, so we don’t purport to evaluate the relative viability of different litigation strategies. We do hope, though, that our work gives other scholars and the public a more complete picture of the role that litigation might play in promoting climate accountability and mitigation for this industry.

We do hope ... that our work gives other scholars and the public a more complete picture of the role that litigation might play in promoting climate accountability and mitigation for this industry.”

—Thomas Poston ’24

How, if at all, has litigation in this area developed since you began the project?

Bray: When we started this project over two years ago, the universe of climate change and animal agriculture cases was quite narrow. We’ve seen the trend significantly accelerate, and watched some of the early cases, like Danish Crown in Denmark and Fonterra in New Zealand, progress. New regulatory developments have also changed the landscape significantly, from new emissions disclosure rules promulgated by California and the federal Securities and Exchange Commission to a package of disclosure and due diligence directives adopted by the European Union.

On the other hand, we’ve also seen in Europe the serious controversy and political response that the regulation of agriculture may entail. Those challenges raise complex questions about litigation’s place in the broader context of climate change mitigation, including its potential as a tool both to promote compliance with existing statutes and regulations and to push for tighter measures.  

Your work engages in detail with an impressive breadth of disciplines. How did you collate and synthesize seemingly disparate sources in your article?

Poston: We benefit from being part of a very robust community of students and scholars — at Yale and beyond — with diverse jurisdictional and disciplinary expertise. Databases maintained by climate litigation researchers at Columbia University and the London School of Economics provided the foundation for our survey, and exchanges with other scholars and practitioners helped us continually update and refine the article. The result is a cross-cutting piece of legal scholarship that engages with cases across many different doctrinal areas. That was critical to our effort to develop an overarching understanding of the present and future of climate change and animal agriculture litigation.

What were some highlights of working on this piece together?

Bray: Thomas! Thomas and I both started at YLS during the fall 2021 semester, me as a fellow and Thomas as a 1L and a new LEAP Student Fellow. During that first semester, Thomas joined the project that I lead, the Climate Change & Animal Agriculture Litigation Initiative (CCAALI), as a research assistant. He later enrolled in our practical course, the Climate, Animal, Food, and Environmental Law & Policy Lab (CAFE Lab), and we have never stopped working and learning together. Thomas is a great partner who is incredibly smart, hard-working, kind, and fun — my only regret is that he is graduating!

Poston: Coauthoring this article has offered an exceptional opportunity to contribute to scholarly and policy debates while still a student. Daina brings such an incredible background in animal advocacy as well as litigation, while I joined this project with particular interest in environmental, international, and comparative law. In the end, I think the whole of our shared expertise has proved even greater than the sum of its parts. And throughout the research and writing process, Daina has been a wonderful mentor, helping me refine my voice as a scholar and trusting me as a colleague as the article took shape. Collaborating with Daina on this project — not to mention many others who reviewed drafts and offered invaluable advice and ideas, like LEAP leaders Professor Doug Kysar, Jonathan Lovvorn, and Viveca Morris — has absolutely been a highlight of my time as a Yale Law School student and LEAP Student Fellow.