Are new greenhouse gas cuts too soft on the EU’s farmers?

The European Commission suggests a 90% cut in EU greenhouse gas emissions by 2040; however, weakened regulations for agriculture raise concerns amid protests and sector disparities.

In brief:
  • European Commission proposes ambitious 90% cut in net greenhouse gas emissions by 2040
  • This will not include key agricultural requirements, such as a 30% cut in non-CO2 emissions by 2040, which some say undermines environmental efforts
  • Energy, transportation and heavy industry face the bulk of emission cuts, and will have to make up for perceived slack in other areas.
In detail:

The European Commission has recommended tough new greenhouse gas emission targets for EU member states, but critics say the regulations are weaker than expected concerning agriculture.

The Commission has recommended the EU slash its net greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2040.

Notably, however, key requirements concerning agriculture which appeared in previous drafts of the recommendations did not appear in the final version. The most important omission appeared to be dropping the requirement that agriculture would be obliged to cut non-CO2 emissions 30% by 2040 compared to 2015 levels.

If agriculture was the big winner in the announcement, the big losers are set to be energy, transportation and heavy industry, which will be forced to absorb the bulk of the impact of the cuts.

Removal of the target comes against a backdrop of weeks or even months of protests by farmers in countries across Europe over rising costs, competition and regulation.

Convoys of tractors entered into a showdown with police armoured vehicles in France at the beginning of February. Farmers also joined protests in Spain, Poland, Romania, Belgium and Italy and had been active in the Netherlands.

In Germany farmers had begun to block roads with tractors after the government announced plans to progressively eliminate diesel subsidies.

While in Spain, farmers said the European Green Deal forces producers to abandon productive lands and to dramatically reduce the use of pesticides and fertilisers.

The Commission also gave way last week on plans to cut pesticide use – shelving proposals to halve chemical pesticide use in the EU by the end of the decade.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyden said the proposal had become a symbol of polarisation and would be withdrawn.

Farmers were protesting that in many cases they are being made to foot the bill for environmental sustainability measures through environmental penalties and cuts and subsidies. This comes on top of pressures from supermarkets to cut prices and cheaper competition from abroad.

In recent weeks member states have also backed down in the squareoff against farmers. Germany has watered down plans to cut diesel subsidies and France said it aims to scrap a planned increase in diesel taxes.

The EU also delayed rules to set aside more land to promote soil health and to encourage biodiversity.

Analysts said that after the apparent climbdown on reducing agriculture’s CO2 emissions, potential future efforts could meet even more resistance. Right-wing parties that largely support the farmers’ grievances are expected to gain ground around Europe in forthcoming elections.

Meeting much of the targets would rely on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies with the EU aiming to capture and store 280 million tonnes of carbon by 2040.

Critics argue that CCS technology is largely unproven and question whether it will be capable of meeting the demands placed on it.

Czech MEP Alexandr Vondra, from the eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists Group said: “The farmers are revolting in Europe and the European Commission is coming with further unrealistic ambitions.”

He called the measures a drive to "force people to have a different lifestyle".

However, Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner, Silvia Pastorelli, said: “While it sounds like a big number, this target uses some creative accounting with promised carbon capture to hide much lower actual emission cuts.

“Without honesty about an end to fossil fuels and finally tackling farming emissions, it’s hard to see how the EU will even clear this too-low bar it’s setting itself.”

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