EU’s methane strategy fails on agriculture

By: Margherita Tolotto

Why is it important to focus on methane? Methane is both accelerating climate breakdown and contaminating the air we breathe, generating ground-level ozone that harms people’s health, crops and ecosystems. Yet, up until now no serious action has been taken to limit methane emissions, and the European Commission’s Methane Strategy published in October is not up to the challenge.

Methane comes from a range of sources. In the EU in 2017, the energy sector accounted for about 16 per cent of total anthropogenic methane emissions, while 28 per cent came from the waste sector. The remaining 54 per cent emanated from agriculture. Here, enteric fermentation of ruminants (belching and flatulence) accounted for about 81 per cent and manure management and use for most of the rest.

In early 2020, the Commission announced that a methane strategy covering all major emission sectors – energy, waste and agriculture – was going to be adopted soon. Good news! Or so we thought. But instead the Commission’s strategy leaves a bitter taste in our mouths, as the only sector touched by “real action” is energy. Why? Because it is easy.

The biggest oil and gas companies have already autonomously set their own methane reduction targets as part of their latest attempt to try to prove that there could still be a future for fossil fuels. Tackling emissions from the energy sector is of course important, but in itself not enough, as it leaves over four-fifths of methane emissions unaddressed.

So why is the Commission deliberately ignoring agricultural methane even though it accounts for over half of all EU methane emissions? Most probably because it is a challenging task, with strong opposition from the big industrial farming lobby. Nevertheless, cutting methane emissions from farms is absolutely essential.

In its strategy, the Commission mentions lack of reliable data as the main issue preventing effective action on agricultural methane. However, this is not a valid argument: air pollutant emissions are commonly reported under the National Emission Ceilings Directive using a methodology that the Commission perplexingly considers insufficient as a basis for action on methane from agriculture. In the unlikely event that the Commission seriously believes that available data is insufficient, this is still no reason to waste precious time, because methane emissions from farming pose an acute climate, health and environmental hazard. If your house is on fire, you do not try to calculate the exact amount of water that is needed to put it out, you immediately start throwing water. This is the time to throw water.

To slash agricultural methane, the Commission could start from the same approach they apply to methane emissions from the energy sector and target “super emitters”, which also exist in the livestock farming sector, i.e. large farms with more than 50 livestock units that account for more than two-thirds of agricultural methane emissions in the EU, and about 40 per cent of all EU methane emissions.

Moreover, the Commission should promote a comprehensive set of measures to reduce agricultural methane. The strategy only puts forward two solutions: feeding strategies, mainly based on additives, and biogas plants. However, changing animal feed is just an end-of-pipe solution that does not tackle other issues such as ammonia emissions. Ammonia originates from manure, slurry and fertilisation, and is a leading precursor of the hazardous particles that pollute the air we breathe. Turning manure into biogas, unless it is limited to small-scale and on farm-consumption, is not a way forward either, as it risks incentivising more intensive livestock farming, or the use of plants suitable for human consumption to produce more biogas.

Many of the measures that can be taken at farm level to slash methane are also effective in reducing ammonia, and thus constitute a double win for air quality. Such measures include coverage of slurry basins, frequent removal of manure from the stable, small-scale extraction of biogas from slurries, and acidification of the slurry. If the Commission and our governments promoted the implementation of these measures at farm level, coupled with effective monitoring of their application, we would see a remarkable reduction in air pollution and greenhouse gases from agriculture.

But even if all the available technical measures are taken, they will not be sufficient, as they must be accompanied by reductions in meat and milk production and consumption. Regrettably, the Commission’s methane strategy barely refers to this need, saying that “lifestyle and diet changes could also contribute substantially to reducing EU methane emissions”, without any further elaboration on how this critically important measure should be pursued in practice.

The strategy also fails to set binding emissions reduction targets for total methane emissions (both EU-wide and for member countries) and avoids any reference to the need for mandatory measures to be adopted at farm level. Meanwhile, official emissions data shows that methane emissions from agriculture have increased since 2013.

Through the Common Agricultural Policy, the agricultural sector is receiving public money without making any significant efforts to cut pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. The polluter-pays principle, included in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, of which the European Commission should be the guardian, requires all polluters to take responsibility for and remedy their pollution. Industrial farming cannot be exempted from obligations deriving from existing air quality laws and the (soon-to-be) climate law – all sectors must play their part.

In the face of the current environmental, climate and health crises, it is imperative that every cent we spend and every measure we take is future-proof.

 

Margherita Tolotto

Air Pollution Officer

European Environmental Bureau

In this issue

Editorial

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