Climate change: Is the EU doing enough to reduce methane emissions in agriculture?

Climate change: Is the EU doing enough to reduce methane emissions in agriculture?
A rescued calf in the cow pasture at a farm sanctuary, credit: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals Media

While the urgent need to reduce emissions of methane has been highlighted in the two latest UN Climate Change Conferences in Glasgow (COP26 in 2021) and Sharm el Sheikh (COP27 in 2022)  agriculture as a source of methane is still underestimated in the EU.

In fact, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas (GHG) and the second most abundant anthropogenic greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide (CO2), accounting for about 20 percent of global emissions, according to a factsheet issued by the Global Methane Initiative at COP26.

It is considered a “short-term climate forcer”. While methane remains in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time and is emitted in smaller quantities than CO2, its ability to trap heat in the atmosphere is several times greater.

Well-known bioethics professor Peter Singer warned recently in an op-ed in The New York Times about the devasting impact of methane emissions in agriculture on both the climate and animal welfare. He concluded that mankind should at least half its consumption of meat and other animal products.

Ethane emissions from farmed animals

The major contributor to climate change in agriculture is the methane produced by farmed animals, mainly cows and sheep, as they digest their food (enteric fermentation). This source of emissions is not included in the Global Methane Initiative to which the EU is committed. According to the factsheet, the initiative will only cover ca 54 % of global ethane emissions.

Ethane emissions from breeding of cattle and other ruminant animals account globally for 27 % of emissions in agriculture. In the EU, the figure is much higher according to a special audit report in June 2021 by the European Court of Auditors. Animal GHG emissions, mainly methane, in food production were estimated to over 50 %. Agriculture emissions represent 13 % of total GHG emissions in the EU.

As previously reported, the auditors found that the EU common agriculture policy (CAP) had little impact on agricultural emissions during the previous budget period (2014 – 2020). ECA recommended that the Commission takes action so that the CAP reduces emissions from agriculture. One of the issues in the CAP and the Farm to Fork Strategy is the current factory farming.

The Commission responded to the report that there are no specific mitigation targets for agriculture because they have been covered by national reduction targets and, in the European Green Deal, will be part of the emission targets for the whole EU economy.“

“We believe that if member states would set themselves a target for agriculture, it would be easier for the Commission to assess whether this target is ambitious and whether the measures planned to be supported are likely to achieve it,” Viorel Stefan, the ECA member responsible for the report, told The Brussels Times in 2021.

Asked by its policy to reduce methane emissions in agriculture, spokespersons of the European Commission told The Brussels Times that there is a policy framework in the context of the European Green Deal and referred also to Global Ethane Initiative.

“We have a methane strategy. One of the first things we did in the first year of the new Commission was to focus on three sectors that are emitting methane – energy, environment/waste and agriculture. ”Most of the efforts to reduce methane emissions are in the energy sector because there you have the ‘lowest hanging fruit’ where the measures will be most cost-effective,” the Commission admitted.

The issue is also tackled in the new CAP, according to the spokesperson. Furthermore, for the moment a regulation to address reduction of methane is going through the legislative process as part of the Fit to 55 package.

However, judging by the new CAP strategic plans (CSP) submitted by the member states, the overall reduction of emissions at EU level in the livestock sector is only 2.4 % of all livestock units among those 11 countries that have set the relevant target (R.13).

According to a Commission summary of the plans, some countries have designed eco-schemes such as outdoor grazing and the adaptation of feed management or the use of feed additives to reduce emissions. The issue is also addressed through investments in support of manure storage and actions targeting livestock with national level funding planned outside of the CSPs.

EU will not meet commitments

This is far from enough, according to NGOs. “If the Commission continues to focus almost only on energy and waste, it will not meet its commitments under the Global Methane Pledge nor under the Paris Agreement,” Miguel Ángel Zhan Dai, Climate Policy Officer the European Policy Office of FOUR PAWS, told The Brussels Times.

“While the livestock farming sector contributes on the global average to 32% of total methane emissions, at the EU level, the sector is responsible for 53% of EU methane emissions. Furthermore, these emissions are only expected to fall around 3.7% by 2030 even if all current planned measures are implemented.”

He is worried that the scope of the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) does not include cattle farming and that the threshold for farms to be included under the directive has not been lowered. The negotiating position decided by the Council in March lowered the ambition to include only 3% of cattle farms, hindering considerable the ability of the IED to tackle methane emissions.

"The EU is one of the instigators of the Global Methane Pledge, committing to significantly decrease methane emissions,” commented Olga Kikou, Head of Compassion in World Farming EU.  “One sector that needs to participate in these efforts is animal farming which produces over half of EU methane emissions.”

“Current EU policies only offer a very small reduction of non-CO2 emissions in agriculture until 2030. It’s unacceptable to continue exempting animal farming from environmental policies and allowing them to operate without any responsibility for its disastrous effect on our climate."

While the EU's total GHG emissions have decreased by 30% during 1990 – 2021 according to figures in the Commission’s annual Climate Action Progress Report ,the results in sectors such as agriculture and transport are less impressive.

NGOs across the EU fear that political resistance against sustainable food policies is threatening to derail the process for an EU Sustainable Food System Law scheduled for early Autumn this year. Last February, they issued an open letter urging Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to ensure that the Commission proposal is presented as planned.

The new CAP must be more ambitious regarding climate action, both mitigation and adaptation, a Commission source said but that has not happened yet, among others because of opposition by EU member states and MEPs in the European Parliament.

In a recent meeting, the Parliamentary Agriculture Committee voted on food security but the report it adopted does not address climate targets in agriculture. Overall, the committee refused to recognise the industrial characteristics of conventional farming.

The Committees on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) and on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) voted on their position on the new legislation on methane emissions in the energy sector. While their votes did not deal with agriculture, they urged the Commission to propose a binding 2030 reduction target for EU methane emissions for all relevant sectors by the end of 2025.

On Wednesday, the European Parliament will debate the role of agriculture in the green transition and the fight against climate change. The debate has been requested by among others the European People’s Party (EPP), which has voiced its opposition against legislative proposals to restore damaged ecosystems and reduce the use of chemical pesticides.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

Copyright © 2024 The Brussels Times. All Rights Reserved.