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01/10/2016

Governments ditch EU methane limits

Agriculture & Food

Governments ditch EU methane limits

Flatulence from livestock is a major source of methane emissions.

[Paul van de Velde/Flickr]

National governments have axed methane emission caps to fight climate change and protect public health from draft European Union air pollution rules, ahead of a meeting of environment ministers on Monday (15 June).

The National Emissions Ceiling (NEC) Directive sets limits for certain air pollutants in each EU country. The latest version, currently going through the legislative process, is the first time that the European Commission has tried to cap methane.

A working paper prepared by diplomats ahead of the environment ministers’ meeting strikes requirements to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030 from the bill.

On Monday in Luxembourg, ministers will take part in a public policy debate over the draft NEC Directive. The meeting will frame the Council of Ministers’ eventual position in negotiations with the European Parliament over the NEC Directive.

Before the NEC Directive can become EU law, both the Parliament and Council must agree an identical text. Both institutions typically amend the bill and agree their own position on it before they settle down to talks. The Council is expected to decide on its position in September.

Lead MEP on the bill, Julie Girling, a British Conservative on the Parliament’s Environment Committee, told EurActiv she was not surprised by the move. “This is what member states individually have been telling me for months,” she said.

The Environment Committee will vote on its report on 15-16 July and a plenary vote could take place already in September 2015. Two weeks ago, when the European Parliament’s Agriculture and Rural Development Committee was asked for its opinion on NEC Directive, it backed withdrawing emission limits for methane and ammonia.

A significant minority of the Environment Committee is in favour of excluding ammonia and methane. EurActiv understands that Girling would fight for the Parliament’s final position, which could either support or drop the limits.

Agriculture, which has a notoriously powerful lobby, is responsible for 40% of methane emissions in the EU. The gas, which is also emitted by fracking, is mostly produced by livestock.

Methane is a more short-lived but much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It traps up to 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2 in a five year period and 72 times more over 20 years. It turns into ozone in the atmosphere. When breathed in over time it damages blood vessels and contributes to heart disease.

Double regulation?

According to the paper, it was dropped because of “concerns about possible overlaps with commitments related to greenhouse gas emission reduction targets”.

The document states that the changes to the bill were “presently supported by a majority of delegations, while the Commission has a number of reservations (among others, on methane and flexibilities)”.

Critics of the NEC Directive argue that the caps constitute “double regulation”. The EU’s 2030 climate and energy package demands a greenhouse gas cut of 40% by 2030.

>>Read: EU leaders agree ‘flexible’ climate and energy targets

Supporters counter that the package gives governments too much flexibility over how they hit the reduction target. The NEC Directive would force them specifically to reduce methane and ammonia emissions.

Countries with large agricultural industries, such as the United Kingdom and Italy, are thought to be behind the dropping of the cap on methane. France and Denmark are against the ammonia limits.

The air pollution rules narrowly escaped being axed by the Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans as part of his drive to cut red tape and deliver “better regulation”.

>>Read: MEPs debate saved air rules before Circular Economy inquest

Timmermans ultimately held back on scrapping the NEC Directive. In December, he told MEPs it would be changed to make it more likely to be approved by the Council of Ministers and European Parliament.

He told Girling that the bill will be tailored to the 2030 climate and energy targets agreed by EU leaders in October. But they would be made in negotiations between the Council of Ministers and the Parliament to agree the final law, rather than by withdrawing and retabling the proposal.

Lobbying

Environmental campaigners told EurActiv they feared the methane cap would not survive the horse-trading between the institutions, due to the influence wielded by the agriculture lobby.

The Commission’s NEC text also aims to cut ammonia emissions by 27% by 2030. Agriculture is responsible for 95% of ammonia emissions. There are concerns that the limits on ammonia would be next to be targeted.

“The farm lobby is pushing to remove emission limits which affect agriculture,” said Louise Duprez, senior policy officer for air pollution and noise at the European Environmental Bureau, “What makes the agricultural sector so special that it should get exemptions but not other sectors like transport?”

Copa-Cogeca is the European Farmers and Agri-cooperatives Association. Copa-Cogeca Secretary-General Pekka Pesonen said that the caps in the NEC Directive would hit the livestock sector hard.

“There is no cost-efficient way to reduce methane emissions without carbon leakage,” he said, citing a Joint Research Centre report on greenhouse gas mitigation policy options for EU agriculture.

Measures aiming to reduce greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions could result in a drop in EU production, which would threaten food security, he added.

Background

The NEC Directive sets national emission ceilings for certain air pollutants for member states. It was one of a slew of bills slated for the chop by Timmermans, tasked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to cut red tape and deliver “better regulation”.

Timmermans ultimately held back on scrapping the NEC Directive. In December, he told MEPs it would be changed to make it more likely to be approved by the Council of Ministers and European Parliament.

He told Julie Girling, the lead MEP, on the bill that it will be tailored to the 2030 climate and energy targets agreed by EU leaders in October. But they would be made in negotiations between the Council of Ministers and the Parliament to agree the final law.

Timeline

  • Monday, 15 June: EU environment ministers meet in Luxembourg.
  • 15-16 July: Environment Committee votes on Girling report.
  • September: Council and Parliament expected to adopt position on draft NEC Directive.

Further Reading

Council of Ministers