Carbon emissions from cows are quadruple the emissions from cars traveling in the seashore, park service says (Point Reyes Light, 02.19.2009)

Cow contemplating the meaning of lifeThe Point Reyes National Seashore is preparing a greenhouse gas reduction plan, and the data it is using show that the overwhelming majority of carbon emissions come from cows.

Cattle, vehicle transportation within park boundaries, PG&E bills and waste within the park were the only sources calculated in the last four years; emissions from wildlife or transportation to and from the park were excluded.

The park began to calculate its carbon emissions profile in 2005. Three years later, it joined the Climate Friendly Parks Network; the Point Reyes Climate Friendly Parks Action Plan is expected to be completed this spring. The plan will call for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent from 2005 levels within three years.

Emission profile

In 2005, Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) emitted 7,663 metric tons of carbon equivalent. Emissions from livestock management was 5,968 metric tons—or about three-quarters of that total.

The second largest source of carbon emissions come from transportation—which is usually the largest source of emissions in other Climate Friendly Parks—and the rest of the carbon came from energy use from park operations and waste disposal.

After the park collected information, it plugged those numbers into CLIP Tools—an excel spreadsheet inventory program developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that calculates the emissions using complicated algorithms and formulas to provide the metric tons of carbon emitted by sources such as cows and cars.

Numeric answers are inserted intothe blank spaces, much like an itemized deductions spreadsheet for doing taxes online. What is the vehicle’s make and model and how often is it driven? How many light bulbs are there in the park?

“It seems anal retentive, but someone has that number somewhere,” said Julie Thomas McNamee, air quality and climate change Washington DC liaison for the National Parks Service (NPS).

“But the tool is only as good as the numbers and stuff you put in it,” Thomas McNamee said. “Many of the numbers are educated estimations that give you a nice ball park. And you can decide to exclude things. We let each park tell us what they want to put in there to meet their special needs.”

Glacier Bay National Park has cruise ships. Some parks might even have legislation for oil and gas mining. “We tailor it to their needs,” Thomas McNamee said. “As long as they are transparent.”

Watercrafts, electric vehicles and manure are examples of carbon emitters in PRNS that were not included in its CLIP inventory in 2005.

“We have learned so much from the baseline year. There were things we weren’t aware of and things CLIP Tools didn’t know,” said William Shook, chief of natural resources for PRNS. “Each time we run CLIP Tools, the data quality gets better.”

Thomas McNamee added, “If the park generated it, we should count it.”

But by looking at only specified parameters, CLIP Tools does not look at the complete picture, said Jeff Creque, a range land ecologist.

“It’s a question of where we draw our lines and what questions we ask. Limited prescribed questions will only get them limited prescribed answers,” he said. “This is a cursory and fragmented look at the enormous carbon question. If they are serious about this, they need to look at it from an ecosystem perspective, not from select components from the ecosystem. This is a grabbing the elephant by the tail story. You really need to look at the entire elephant.”

Cow numbers

“We counted them,” Shook said.

CLIP Tools divided the cows into different weight classes. Milkers, dry cows and heifers on dairy farms are different from steers, bulls and beef cattle on beef ranches—and they all vary in the amount of food and water they need and the manure they generate.

In 2007, cattle contributed 4,208 metric tons of carbon—a reduction from the two years before, when livestock contributed nearly 6,000 tons. That reduction is largely due to the Giacomini Wetlands Restoration Project. “600 cows were no longer included,” Shook said.

Cattle flatulence is also a part of the emissions profile.

Dairy cattle are confined for large portions of the day, and their manure is collected and stored in a dairy waste lagoon. There, the gas decomposes and creates methane.

Beef cattle roam around pastures. “Their flatulence is exposed and broadcasted on the ground, where it can decompose aerobically, which has less emissions than fermenting in a lagoon,” Shook said. “It’s still off-gassing, but not to the magnitude as manure stored in a lagoon.”

“But flatulence is flatulence,” Shook said. “The jury is out on whether there are more emissions from flatulence or manure. You can’t control cow flatulence, but you can do something about stored methane.”

One way to deal with manure is by using an expensive bio-digester to convert methane into electricity. “We’re thinking about it and finding grant funding, but it’s not a good economic time to take on debt,” Shook said. “We do hope to work with ranchers to do this.”

Elk flatulence?

Flatulence from wildlife is not included in the inventory.

“Rocky Mountain did ask us to calculate elk farts,” Thomas McNamee said. In trying to educate the cattle ranchers near the park about emissions from agriculture, Rocky Mountain was asked why the park didn’t control emissions from their animals, such as elk. “So we included the calculations to tease out emissions from elk. It may have started out as sarcasm, but it did inform the discussion and better explain what it is we’re trying to account for, which is anthropogenic emissions versus natural ones.”

Shook said that elk are part of the natural environment and not anthropogenic. “We can count deer too, or even song sparrows,” he said. “But you need good numbers and research on what their output is. I don’t know how much emissions come from a song sparrow.” “Technically, at some point, they will balance themselves in nature without much interference from us,” he added.

“On the other hand, people can decide to drive bigger vehicles, drive farther, drink more milk and have more cows.”

Another thing that is not included in the emissions profile is the natural sequestration of carbon by vegetation. “Forests store and release carbon, but they would do that whether we are here or not,” Thomas McNamee said. “We can’t take credit for that.”

“All those trees and wetlands are out there already. You can’t count that because the aim is to reduce your emissions, not to rely on something else to prop you up,” Shook added. “We don’t factor those in because we’re focused on what’s human generated and outside the normal range of the environment. Those are things we can control because of our behavior.”

Rather than measure impact, CLIP Tools gives parks a way of tracking their progress on reducing their emissions. “If gives you a snapshot in time to identify where you need to do more work,” Shook said. “The CLIP Tool is not a score card. It’s a way to see what you can do better in your carbon footprint.”

Transportation numbers

Emissions from visitor and park vehicles were measured. But only transportation within the park boundaries was counted and not transportation to and from the park.

“In almost every other park, transportation is the typically the highest sector,” Thomas McNamee said.

“There are much bigger parks with more visitors driving longer distances,” Shook added.

Golden Gate National Recreational Area included emissions from the Golden Gate Bridge, and Great Smoky Mountains included emissions from a highway that runs through it.

For visitors, CLIP Tools asks for the average speed and miles traveled. In 2007, the two million visitors in PRNS traveled 12 million miles. The roundtrip between Bear Valley Visitor Center and the lighthouse is about 40 miles, and the trip to Limantour is about 16 miles. The average visitor speed is 29 miles per hour in the park.

The park leases five types of vehicles, and for billing purposes, PRNS keeps a record of how many miles each of their vehicles have traveled or the number of gallons of gasoline or diesel they put in. Depending on the class of the vehicle—hybrid, electric, light truck, heavy dump truck or off-road equipment—CLIP Tools figures out the fuel consumed to calculate the carbon emissions for each type of car.

Using different EPA carbon dioxide estimates, one calculation yielded nearly 5,000 metric tons of carbon from 12 million visitor miles a year if one vehicle emits about 0.9 pounds of carbon per vehicle mile.

Waste and energy numbers

“If we weren’t here, there wouldn’t be this waste,” Thomas McNamee said. “So we’re responsible for it.”

The disposing and processing of waste emits greenhouse gases. “Once it starts to cook and mingle, that’s what we’re watching for,” she added.

Wastewater treatment usually releases methane. “We assume that all of the water the park consumed essentially goes into the wastewater system,” Shook said. In 2007, the park consumed 1.7 million gallons of water, which it gets from North Marin Water District.

In 2007, landfills received nearly 300 tons of solid waste, which generates methane and sometimes carbon dioxide. “That includes park and visitor garbage from all the dumpsters and trashcans in the park,” Shook explained.

The park examined its PG&E bills. Only energy used for park operations were counted in the inventory. “We didn’t get that kind of information from leasees,” Shook said.

Many national parks have withholdings. “If it wouldn’t have been used had we not been there using it, we should count it,” Thomas McNamee said.

Action Plan

The Climate Friendly Parks program began in 2003—a partnership between the EPA and NPS to reduce carbon footprint. There are now over 40 parks in the network. In order to achieve Climate Friendly designation, a park must conduct a greenhouse gas inventory and complete a plan with specific steps to reduce emissions.

After the park has used the CLIP Tool inventory tool, it then uses the CLIP Tool Action Planning Tool—based on emissions calculated in the inventory tool, the planning tool will provide a customized list of suggestions for reducing emissions.

“It calculates how much you can reduce by and how much it will cost you to do that,” Thomas McNamee said. “It lists lots of possible actions you can take.” These include low flow fixtures, replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents
and downsizing vehicle fleets.

Parks can pick and choose what actions to include in their Climate Action Plan, but there are actions not listed in the CLIP Tool.

“It’s formulaic, and that’s why we have a working group to come up with some new actions to improve our performance,” Shook said. “We take what we can from the CLIP Tool and massage it a bit.”

Some actions PRNS wants to implement include a shuttle between Bear Valley and Limantour and expanding photovoltaic systems. “With the economy and the low budget, we do these things incrementally,” Shook said.

The new plan will contain data from 2005 until 2008 in order to show trends. “We do it every year so we can look at where we want to improve and where we should be focusing our attention,” Shook said.

In 2005, visitation in the park was 1.9 million; it was 2.3 million in 2008. “Somethings are out of our control,” Shook said. “What we can control is our energy use and our own park mileage traveled. We’re trying to reduce that by mostly educating people—don’t take unnecessary trips and turn lights off. If everybody just reduces a little bit, it multiplies, and you make progress.”


PRNS’ Climate Action Plan and the draft General Management Plan are both expected to come out this year. “The General Management Plan is a very broad, long-range document. It’s the top document that drives everything below it,” Shook said. “There’s no relationship between that and this Climate Action Plan.”

With cattle emitting the most carbon in Point Reyes, would data from the Climate Action Plan could cast negativity against ranchers? “We do want ranchers to be efficient and good stewards, and we’ll work with them on their operations and the things they can do,” Shook said.

The final step that comes after developing the Action Plan is “Do Your Part”—an educational tool for the public. “The park takes stock of where it is, makes a plan to do better, starts making improvements and explains this to the public through ‘Do Your Part,’” Shook said. “It’s about changing people’s culture, behavior and energy. It’s about education and outreach, that’s what it comes down to,” Shook said. “It’s not about management.”

“You can change how much nitrogen is in chicken poop by what you feed them,” Thomas McNamee said. “So you can theoretically change what you feed cows and, to degree, you can control what’s in their farts and burps.”

~ by Janet Fang on February 19, 2009.

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