Eli5 Is methane from cows a closed cycle (like carbon from leaves) or does it produce excess greenhouse gases!


I’ve seen this debated all over the place lately and I just can’t seem to get a straight answer. I know cattle rearing is environmentally damaging for other reasons but is there a simple yes/no answer to the methane issue?

Explain like I’m five please.

In: Earth Science

Y’all need to stop coming to a sub that’s literally called “explain like I’m five” for topics that can’t be explained to a child

And especially if something is debated and obviously not a distinct answer there’s no way for that complexity to be explained as simply as something a child can understand.

No it is not closed, at least not like the cycle you mentioned.

There is a carbon cycle for leaves, carbon in the ground, and CO2 in the air. Plants use CO2 from the air to make leaves/biomass. Plants die and the biomass is decomposed (or burned etc) and the carbon goes back in the air (as CO2).

But there is no such cycle process for methane. Cows put methane in the air, but plants don’t remove methane from the air. Nothing on the ground removes methane from the air. It just floats around, slowly broken down by solar radiation in the atmosphere but that’s it.

Also methane has 80x the warming power of CO2 so it’s worse in that way too.

Source: I took a university course on atmospheric chemistry. It’s VERY complicated.

It is strictly speaking closed cycle with the methane eventually breaking down into carbon dioxide and then getting absorbed by the plants that the cows eat. However there are lots of caviots to this. For one methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas then carbon dioxide. So releasing methane into the atmosphere, even if from renewable resources, will cause a lot more climate change then releasing the same carbon as carbon dioxide. Secondly a lot of cattle farming relies on unsustainable farming practices. This ranges from feeding the cattle on palm oil that have been grown in an unsustaniable way to large amounts of potasium rich runof depleating the already low world supply. This means that even though the methane released from cows is strictly speaking part of a closed cycle it does cause a lot of global climate change compared to other forms of food manufacturing.

What we call “cows” in the USA are not native, and they can’t digest native plants properly, which is why they release methane instead of harvesting those chemical bonds for energy. So that’s why nature’s operation has gotten out of whack and it’s not a closed system anymore