Sustainable Energy

Cleaner cow burps: A climate change solution?

One company claims to have found a solution to one of the world's largest contributors to greenhouse emissions — gassy cows.

Global livestock accounts for 14.5 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. About 44 percent of all livestock emissions are in the form of methane — which is a common byproduct of the digestive processes of cows and other ruminants like sheep. And it is the burp – rather than gas from the other end – that is the biggest source of the animal's methane.

But now Dutch life sciences company DSM is trialing a powdered feed additive that, could reduce methane emissions by more than 30 percent. Some dairy cows saw nearly 60 percent reduction rates during trial testing, while cattle raised for beef saw cuts of nearer 35 percent.

Dave Wild | Flickr | Getty Images

Cows produce, on average, 500 liters of methane per day, with 95 percent of a cow's methane emissions released through 'eructation,' or more plainly: cows burps, DSM's website explains.

The company hasn't detailed the additive's ingredients. The website explains it's not a natural substance but "a specifically developed compound," but adds that the project is testing for both animal and human safety as well as any changes in the taste of milk or meat.

The company hopes to launch their product by 2018.

Perfect timing?

Professor Douglas Crawford-Brown, the director of the Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research, told CNBC that this type of burp-reducing technology has been around for years — the problem has just been poor timing or lack of regulatory appetite.

Governments will have to drop the "regulatory hammer" before there's a viable market for products like DSM's methane-reducing feed additive. Farmers, who already "make a pitiful amount" of money from food production, won't take on extra costs willingly.

But the Dutch firm claims that with less energy dedicated to the digestive processes that create methane, dairy cows could produce more milk. Farmers could also market their product as "being more environmentally friendly," their dedicated project page suggests.

For now, Crawford-Brown said, "there's no demand."

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"Nobody has really started to take on the agricultural husbandry sector as part of any significant climate policy. It's not like Obama saying we have to cut back on coal-burning power plants."

But UN-led global climate change talks at the COP21 conference taking place later this year could be a game-changer.

"What's clear, coming out of Paris in December, is that there is going to be increased focus on land use and land use change." This will bring agricultural and livestock into discussion, Carwford-Brown said.

Leaders will also have to address how many cows humans will be raising in 15 years, especially as developing nations start to mimic western diets and introduce more meat into the fold, he explained.

Methane reduction could ‘backfire’

But a partial reduction in methane levels through products like DSM's powdered additive isn't the solution, Clare Oxborrow, Senior Food and Farming Campaigner, Friends of the Earth told CNBC.

"It could actually backfire in the end," she said. People may start thinking that the methane levels or climate change has been solved. Rather than trying to cultivate less meat, policy makers could see this as an opportunity to approve increased production levels.

"We need bigger reductions globally and a shift in the way we consume. We need less and better meat, less volume and a better type of production."

Until we figure out how to 'de-methanate' meat and dairy production completely, Crawford-Brown said, it's hard to imagine hitting climate targets without some changes to our diets and style of life.

Agriculture and livestock already rank second to the energy sector in terms of global emission levels, Crawford Brown explained.

"We can't as a planet sustain that kind of level of production of livestock products," Oxborrow stressed.