Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Q&A with Manny Rutinel ’22 on Carbon Offsets and Farming

Manny Rutinel ’22 is a Law, Ethics & Animals Program (LEAP) student fellow and a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. In 2020, he was a student in LEAP’s Climate, Animal, Food, and Environmental Law & Policy (CAFE) Lab, where he was part of a team that proposed using carbon offset credits to pay farmers to transition from animal agriculture to plant agriculture. He has spent the past semester working on a methodological report about how to implement these credits, with the goal of having carbon offset registries and cap and trade programs adopt the idea. He and Sebastian Quaade ’21 YC recently published a preliminary draft of his research titled “Animal Agriculture and Emission Reductions: The Viability of a Farm Transition Offset Protocol.” LEAP Program Fellow Noah Macey spoke with Rutinel about this work. 

Could you explain how carbon markets, cap and trade programs, and carbon offsets work? How does your proposal use foregone carbon to finance farmers transitioning to plants? 

Climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Cap and trade is a way to ensure that we continuously decrease greenhouse gas emissions to meet some goal, like the one set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) Paris Agreement. So in California, they put a cap on total carbon emissions allowed in the state, and companies are allowed to buy up to a certain share of the allowed carbon — that amount is their individual cap. Then that carbon is traded amongst companies, who are allowed to pollute up to their cap. On top of that, California’s system allows for companies to produce emissions 8 percent greater than their cap if they purchase carbon offset credits. 

You may have seen carbon offset credits in other capacities, where you take a flight and the airline says, “Hey, if you pay us $8, we can offset the carbon for your flight.” That $8 finances a project elsewhere in the world — could be in the same city, state, country, or an entirely different continent altogether — that reduces emissions equivalent to the ones produced by your flight. Usually the project is something along the lines of reforestation or preventing deforestation: the company buys a plot of land, and they don’t allow people to log it or burn it down. By preventing deforestation or growing trees, they’re reducing carbon emissions. 

Companies and individuals can purchase carbon offset credits whether or not there’s a legal requirement by using the voluntary carbon market system. It’s much broader than California’s system since it allows any climate-conscious companies or individuals to reduce their net emissions. 

As of now, farmers are polluting a lot in animal agriculture, and if they switched to plant agriculture, they would emit much less while still producing great products that provide people with nutritious, delicious, and sustainable foods. That’s where our project comes in: carbon offset credits to pay farmers to transition to plant agriculture. 

Would you briefly describe the history of the project and how it got started? 

It started in LEAP’s CAFE Lab. At the beginning of the course, we were tasked with exploring the policies and initiatives to help address the issues of animal agriculture. We thought about different ideas in the space of food waste and pandemic response — which would have been timely, I think, because this was before anybody was even talking about COVID-19. We also thought, “how can we tie in climate change directly to the issue of animal agriculture?” Carbon markets came up, and the fact that animal agriculture is outside the scope of what they regulate, even under the most progressive policies in the country, like cap and trade in California. Factory farms are able to put out as much pollution as they want. 

So, we were brainstorming ways farms could receive money to produce less carbon using the carbon market framework — things like reducing stocking density. Eventually, we ran into the Transfarmation Project, which is run by Mercy for Animals. Their mission is to help farmers transition from livestock to plants, and the biggest constraint for farmers is how to finance the transition. That’s the bottleneck. So I suggested that we use the carbon market money to pay farmers to replace their animal farms with plant-based operations.

The CAFE Lab process was spectacular. Working with experts from different fields, who are passionate about addressing the issues associated with animal agriculture, makes you think on your feet. The goal is for your project to actually change the world, not to create some up-in-the-air, theoretical thing. Having that structure from the get-go set me up to think, “okay, how do I address the issues before me in the most practical way I can, given the resources I have?” It’s been incredibly rewarding to be part of the CAFE Lab and then to continue this project on my own afterward. 

Your reports talk about how transitioning a farm of 1,000 cows — a moderate size — to a plant-based system would save about 10,000 metric tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gasses. How exactly does animal agriculture contribute to greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change? How would changing a cattle operation to a lentil farm reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air? 

Animal agriculture produces emissions in a series of different ways. For instance, when you’re concentrating tons of animals into a small space, and you have to do something with the manure — the equivalent of several towns’ worth of feces. Factory farms usually keep it in lagoons. These lagoons produce an enormous volume of emissions from the bacteria and archaea digesting and releasing methane and nitrous oxide. That’s one of the direct ways. 

For cows and pigs, there’s also enteric fermentation — more so for cows. It’s just part of the digestive process. Bacteria help digest food inside the stomach of the cow, but in that process, they release tons of methane. And methane is a greenhouse gas with a 20-year warming potential that’s 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times more powerful. 

A more indirect way that animal agriculture produces emissions is from land use change and crop production. Every time you move from one level in the food chain to the next, you lose at least 90 percent of the calories. So what we’re doing right now is producing a bunch of feed crops, feeding that to animals, and those animals excrete out a percentage as feces, and a percentage goes into bones, brains, eyes, and skin that we don’t eat at all. Only a tiny fraction of the food we feed animals goes to edible meat, milk, or eggs. To produce all the crops we need for this wasteful process, we clear grassland, use a ton of fertilizer that releases nitrous oxide, and run a bunch of tractors and cars to transport crops to the feedlots where the animals are. In all of those steps, we are wasting a tremendous amount of calories, fuel, and labor, and ultimately, we’re producing a ton of greenhouse gas emissions.

What makes something a good carbon offset? 

There are criteria that the offset programs use to make sure that a project is a legitimate and appropriate carbon offset. The first requirement is that the project is “additional,” meaning they want the money for the offset project to be the result of purchasing the offset credits. If somebody was already going to do the project, you don’t want to count it as a credit, because then you’re not actually reducing carbon emissions from what they otherwise would have been doing. There can’t be laws in place that mandate the project. For instance, if there was a law that said, “no more factory farms,” then a project converting a factory farm into a plant-based operation wouldn’t additional — it would happen anyway as a result of the law. That’s not the case with factory farms right now; in fact, there are very few environmental regulations on them, and no regulations address their carbon emissions. That means our offset credit proposal is additional because farm transitions are not required by law and because farms wouldn’t be able to make the transition if not for the money provided by the offset credit. 

The project must also be conservative and real. You need to be sure you can appropriately measure the emissions reductions and that there are no leakage effects associated with the project. For instance, if you protect one plot from deforestation, but the plot next door is logged instead, then there’s 100 percent leakage: no reduction in net carbon emissions happened. Usually the market doesn’t react that way, but it’s desirable to make sure that what you’re measuring and crediting is conservative and that the emissions reductions are real. Good sources and research need to show that there’s a high volume of emissions that can be reduced reliably.

Carbon credits for farm transitions are easy to measure because the IPCC and the Environmental Protection Agency have great data on how many emissions each cow, pig, or chicken produces based on their manure system, their feed, et cetera. So it’s easy to come up with a methodology using those calculations. And of course, the transition is permanent: there’s no way for the emissions to go out into the world again once the factory farm is shut down for any amount of time. Whereas if you pay someone to grow a tree, it’s not permanent because the tree could catch fire or fall and decompose and begin releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Factory farms have a baseline level of emissions. But once animal agriculture has stopped at that operation, the reductions are permanent because they never enter the atmosphere to begin with.

Projects also need to be verifiable — people need to be able to monitor and verify that the emissions reductions are taking place. You don’t want to purchase land and say “oh, now it’s protected,” while people are illegally logging. You want to make sure that third-party verifiers can monitor the project and make sure nothing fishy is going on. Our project is very easy to monitor. You can also simply have someone visit and see, or even smell from a distance, whether there’s a factory farm. You can even use satellite imagery to detect whether someone is raising cows, pigs, or chickens. It is incredibly easy to verify whether someone is raising animals or growing plants.

Beyond climate change, you discuss how farm transitions would reduce everyday noncarbon pollution, animal cruelty, and labor exploitation. Could you explain a bit more about these other harm reductions and whether they make this sort of carbon offset significantly better than the alternative options? 

As it stands now, animal agriculture is a horrific, exploitive industry. It’s producing an incredible amount of harm, from chronic health conditions to pandemics, that affect farmers, laborers, animals, local communities, consumers, and people drinking water miles down the road. Perhaps more so than other projects focused only on carbon dioxide, this project touches on all those things. It touches on food sustainability and security because it takes so many resources to produce a unit of animal product and humans could have directly consumed those resources. It reduces our risk of pandemics because farmers are no longer cramming genetically homogenous animals into conditions that compromise their immune systems through stress. Many factory farms maintain lagoons of feces that get sprinkled out into the air, so neighbors down the road can't picnic or spend time outdoors because whenever they go outside, the noxious gases hurt their lungs. So, I think more so than other projects, this ties into social and environmental health concerns. It’s the sort of project that organizations like the California Air Resources Board [CARB] or other offset registries should want to accept and promote because it touches on many other environmental and social goods that other projects might not. 

As it stands right now, animal agriculture is allowed to produce all these harms. The reason why this project is so important is because there are insufficient regulations to internalize the costs associated with animal agriculture. Large corporations don’t pay for their greenhouse gas emissions, their pollution, the toxic chemicals they’re dumping into our streams, the public health risks they create, the chronic diseases they’re responsible for, the exploitation of farmers — society has to bear that cost. It’s unfortunate, and I wish regulations were in place so that all these externalities had to be paid for. Animal agriculture works well within the offset credit system because it’s not being regulated appropriately. This is an innovative way to tackle the issue because it’s a win-win-win for all the players involved. Farmers are going to be happier because it’s a voluntary program, so if they think it’s better for them to take the offset credits, they can do it. Communities are going to be better off because now the farm next to them won’t be spewing a lot of noxious chemicals into their land, water, and air. Laborers are going to be better off because now they’re going to be working on crop agriculture, which isn’t a panacea, but it’s better than working with tortured animals. Our laws are insufficient to deal with the externalities of animal agriculture and this is one way of helping to address that. 

What sort of costs for farmers would this program offset? What sort of advising would they need for this program to help them transition successfully?

There are several programs out there advising farmers about animal-to-plant transitions, what would be profitable crops for them to farm, and how else they can diversify their operations. The Transfarmation Project and another initiative called the Rancher Advocacy Program have both had successes. The main problem with these types of programs is that there’s no financing, which is what I’m looking to ramp up. Farmers make choices based on what they think is the most profitable thing they can do. The goal of this project is to provide financing so that the most profitable thing is to farm something completely different. A lot of research still needs to get done about what sort of crops are going to be the most profitable in different areas of the country and the world. The biggest roadblocks to farm transitions can differ from farm to farm — you know, the specific geography of the farm, whether they’re surrounded by factory farms, which could create a social barrier to switching things up. But there are also just big costs associated with buying equipment to farm plants instead of animals. Financing will help address that. We hope that a lot of equipment used for animal agriculture could be repurposed — for example, barns for chickens or hogs can be used to produce mushrooms or hemp indoors. It’s a burgeoning field in the animal rights and environmental space, so many of the guidelines are still being developed.

How are you going about getting this class of offsets listed in carbon registries?

The first step is getting buy-in from relevant stakeholders to fuel excitement around the idea. To that end, we’re doing a preliminary report on what it would look like to calculate the emissions reductions associated with a farm transition project. Then there are consultants who look at the methodologies and findings from the preliminary reports. The biggest step towards legitimizing and implementing the idea is having one of the voluntary carbon offset registries accept it as a protocol. The most relevant offset organizations in this country are Verra, the Climate Action Reserve, and the American Carbon Registry. These organizations are the carbon offset power brokers, and they decide which protocols are appropriate. Over the last semester, I’ve come up with a report to generate excitement around the idea, which I can send around to relevant stakeholders, and I’ve created a methodology that we can submit to these offset project registries. Once it’s approved — which could take some time — an organization can run with it and begin buying and selling this sort of offset credit. The next step would be implementing it in some of the government compliance markets in California, Quebec, New Zealand, Sweden, Europe, et cetera. Once that’s done, there’s even more funding for farm transitions: companies will finance these projects not out of the goodness of their heart, but because it’s part of doing business, and they have to offset their carbon in some way to be able to function. 

Usually there’s a company or nonprofit that takes the lead in terms of implementing an offset idea because it takes some resources to handle the filing fees, consultants, and researchers. You need a company that has a vision for how to make it profitable or a nonprofit whose values it aligns with. I think that it’s potentially highly profitable because there are some projections that, by 2050, the offset credit market will be hundreds of billions of dollars. So getting just a small percentage of that can mean hundreds of millions of dollars going to transition factory farms to plant-based farms. And the company that handles those projects will get a small cut of that and will be making the planet a better place. 

Once the methodology is fully created, someone might start an organization to connect corporations and individuals who want to offset their carbon with these farmers who want to transition using offset credit financing. There are exciting opportunities for partnerships there. JetBlue could finance a farm transition from animals to peanuts to offset some of their emissions. Then, JetBlue could partner with that farmer to source the peanuts for their in-flight trail mix. Companies like Impossible Foods Inc. could offset their carbon emissions by financing farm transitions and agreeing to source their ingredients from those farms. You could have a food company with certificates on their product saying, “we got this from a farm that made the change from animals to plants, and because of that, it’s carbon neutral.”