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Bovine Intervention

Can a flatulence tax prevent global warming?

By 4.22.04

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WASHINGTON -- The real culprits behind global warming apparently aren't the herds of SUVs stampeding along America's highways -- but 190-million cows contentedly chewing their cuds -- and emitting clouds of foul-smelling methane from their mouths and tailpipes.

No bureaucrats at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been brave enough to go into the field to make precise measurements, but it's been calculated by some experts as roughly 350-megatons each year. (A megaton equals a million tons.) And that doesn't count the flatulent contributions of America's 7.5-billion chickens, 292-million turkeys and 92-million hogs -- not to mention millions of dogs, cats, birds and hamsters.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ignores this growing threat, our Canadian friends north-of-the-border are determined to bring it to heel. The federal government in Ottawa is channeling some $50,000 to scientists at the University of Manitoba to determine just how much rancid-smelling methane gas Canadian cattle produce -- and how much of it comes from their diet and how much of it comes from their indolent lifestyle.

These are important questions, because Canada late last year signed the Kyoto treaty on global warming -- thereby committing its 32 million citizens -- and 15 million cattle -- to reducing their greenhouse gas output by some 25 percent.

WHILE MOST ENVIRONMENTALISTS believe man-made carbon dioxide is the chief contributor to global warming, experts at Environment Canada believe methane, which is capable of trapping approximately 24 times more heat than carbon dioxide, may be a major player as well. In fact, they believe it could cause up to 20 percent of all global warming over the next 50 years. And no, they are not suffering from Mad Cow disease. Other scientists around the world are taking the problem of belches and other barnyard breaches of etiquette seriously as well. One group is even working on methane vaccines that would lower the amount of gas produced in animals.

Other remedies under consideration include developing a bovine equivalent of Beano -- the over-the-counter flatulence reducer -- and engineering a pollution control device that would fit snugly around a cow's posterior and trap methane before it wafts into the atmosphere -- seriously.

The possibility that the latter solution could spur the building of methane recycling stations in depressed rural areas reportedly has excited government economists in several nations. New Zealand officials, indeed, have gone a step further, proposing a "flatulence tax" on their country's ubiquitous sheep population. Needless to say, that has drawn strong protests from irate sheep ranchers.

Despite all these efforts, the problem may prove to be insurmountable. As Paul Schneidereit, a columnist for the Halifax Herald, recently pointed out, even if Canada could lower methane emissions from its cattle it would be pretty much like "burping in the wind." Schneidereit notes that there are only 15 million cattle in all of Canada compared to 1.5 billion worldwide. A third of them are in Asia, where some three billion people -- roughly half the Earth's population -- are not bound by Kyoto's provisions.

"Thus," Schneidereit writes, "just as industries in China and India can continue belching all kinds of greenhouse pollutants into the air without triggering Kyoto consequences, their cattle can likewise keep belching away, undaunted."

YET EVEN IF THE CANADIANS are able to prod their cattle into digestive submission, it may not be enough. Reporters from the Toronto Star recently unveiled a suppressed government audit showing that Canada's greenhouse gas emissions rose to 729 million tons in 2002 -- their highest ever. The same audit showed the government's $500 million, five-year action plan, which was supposed to reduce emission by 50-60 million tons annually, will be lucky to accomplish even half of that.

The European Union, which Schneidereit calls "the world's self-appointed nag," is having problems of it own. While quick to criticize the U.S. for rejecting the Kyoto treaty, EU nations are on course to achieve just a 0.5 percent decrease in greenhouse emissions by 2008 -- not even close to their Kyoto requirement of 8 percent.

Americans are fortunate that a Democratic-controlled Senate in 1997 recognized that the science behind the global warming theory was dubious at best and fraudulent at worst. It voted 95-0 to urge then-President Clinton not to seek ratification of the treaty for fear its mandates would plunge the nation into a prolonged recession. Clinton sagely accepted their advice and counsel -- and President Bush followed suit two years ago by accepting the Senate's initial judgment and formally rejecting the Kyoto treaty.

If those actions hadn't occurred, our EPA, like Environmental Canada, might now be spending thousands of taxpayers' dollars to find ways to prevent cows from doing what comes naturally…

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.