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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

Friday 22 April - Faced with the threat of irreversible tipping points in the climate system, humanity is looking for options to rapidly reduce the rate of warming - with the most viable approach being to dramatically reduce methane emissions. Ultimate success will be dependent on which measures can be executed within the next 10 years, which according to the science, is the critical timeframe for slowing the rate and level of warming. Thanks to the short atmospheric lifetime of methane, strong methane emission reductions in the short term (between 2020 and 2030) can generate a significant impact on limiting the global mean temperature increase. 

Download the working paper

Lessons learnt from the past 30 years of climate action on CO2 show that, while it is science and social pressure that trigger acceptance of the need for change, it is the market that then delivers the transformation. Therefore, to understand how to drive change, and to forecast how it will occur, it is important to analyse how markets shift in response to social pressures. Based on this understanding, we can conclude that reducing methane emissions in the next decade is most likely to happen in the food and agricultural sectors – not, as most forecast, in the fossil fuels or waste sectors. 

Various technologies and capacities to produce food, particularly protein, are facing a technological revolution due to key developments in ‘enabling’ technologies such as processing power, cellular agriculture and biotechnology. The rapidly accelerating market investment in these new technologies is producing exponential growth – following a similar pattern to the one observed in the energy sector for wind and solar energy. The evidence from previous transitions indicates that a disruption in the agri-food sector is imminent, driven by the strong investment on rapidly improving technologies and by the urgent need to reduce methane emissions.  

Key findings:

This paper argues we are at the start of the most profound shift in the climate debate in 20 years. We argue we will now see: 

  • The arrival of the climate emergency into public consciousness, driven by increased severity and frequency of extreme weather events and concern about irreversible climate tipping points. 
  • A resulting shift to a focus on ‘rates of warming’ in addition to ‘level of emissions’. 
  • A recognition that even dramatically accelerated CO2 emission reductions won’t reduce the rate or warming in the required time frame. 
  • Therefore, an intense focus on methane, with action needed in the next decade.

The market impacts could be profound with: 

  • Intense pressure on methane intensive industries to rapidly reduce emissions in the next decade.  
  • Mitigation measures required across all methane intensive sectors – Fossil energy, waste and food and agriculture, to hedge against rapid emission reduction failure in any one sector.  
  • The high likelihood of policy, pricing and incentives to drive methane mitigation measures. 
  • A resulting market disruption to the food and agricultural industries with a battle between new disruptive technologies and adaptive incumbents for the multi-trillion-dollar market opportunity.  

Citing the report

CISL (2022). Methane, Markets and Food: How the Climate Emergency will drive an urgent focus on methane and what this means for the food and agricultural industries. University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Published: April 2022

Authors and acknowledgements

This working paper was written by Paul Gilding and Pablo Salas, with analysisand research from Emily Cracknell. Review of drafts and comments were provided by Jonathon Porritt, James Arbib, Kingsmill Bond, Jeff Turner, Sue Garrard, Jake Reynolds, Nusa Urbancic, Fraser Whineray and Jeremy Hill. Their inputs were invaluable in sharpening context and clarity.

Copyright

Copyright © 2021 University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). Some rights reserved.

Disclaimer

The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL or The University of Cambridge.