EU agricultural funding for combatting climate action has so far been ineffective, according to a damning new report from the European Court of Auditors, which criticises inaction on livestock farming and calls for a “polluter pays” principle.
The report, released on Monday (21 June), found that although over a quarter of all 2014-2020 – amounting to more than €100 billion – of EU agricultural spending was earmarked for climate change, there has been no improvement in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture since 2010.
Viorel Ștefan, the member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the report, highlighted at a press conference that despite a higher ambition on climate change and the corresponding changes made to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, “very little changed compared to the previous period” and the money spent on climate action was therefore “overstated”.
Stressing that there is “no more time to waste,” Ștefan urged action, pointing out that the EU’s role in mitigating climate change in the agricultural sector is crucial given that “the EU sets environmental standards and co-finances most of member states’ agricultural spending”.
CAP weak on livestock
The report puts this failure down to the fact that most of the measures supported by the CAP have a low climate-mitigation potential, while there is far less support on offer for those with high mitigation potential.
Most notably, the report reserved harsh criticism of the fact that the CAP does little to incentivise a reduction in livestock production.
Despite the fact that livestock emissions account for half of agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and that these emissions are directly linked to the size of the livestock herd, the CAP “does not seek to limit livestock numbers; nor does it provide incentives to reduce them”, the auditors pointed out.
Meanwhile, the auditors highlight that CAP market measures continue to include the promotion of animal products, consumption of which has not decreased since 2014.
“This contributes to maintaining greenhouse gas emissions rather than reducing them,” the report concludes.
However, the auditors were quick to point out that any drop in livestock production must correspond with a reduction in consumption, highlighting that otherwise increases the risk of “leakage”, i.e. an increase in greenhouse emissions via the import of animal products.
Meanwhile, while chemical fertilisers and manure account for almost a third of agricultural emissions, auditors point out their use actually increased between 2010 and 2018.
As such, they urged the need for a shift in focus away from current measures towards “demonstrably more effective” practices, such as precision farming methods that match fertiliser applications to crop needs.
CAP “perverse” on peatlands
The report also reserves criticism for the fact that the CAP pays farmers who cultivate drained peatlands. Although these make up less than 2% of EU farmland, they are responsible for 20% of the bloc’s agriculture emissions.
Highlighting that, on balance, the benefits of rewetting peatland outweigh the cons, one auditor called the CAP’s approach to peatlands “perverse” given that, as it stands, farmers stand to lose money by reverting peatlands back.
However, there is currently staunch opposition to the inclusion of stronger measures on peatlands and wetlands in the CAP reform from countries like Ireland, where an estimated 300,000 acres of permanent grassland is on drained, carbon-rich soils.
One suggestion put forth by the auditors is the introduction of the “polluter pays” principle, i.e. ensuring that those who cause pollution, in this case, farmers, meet the costs to which it gives rise, into agriculture.
EU law currently only explicitly applies the polluter-pays principle to its environmental policies but not to agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
It seems the European Commission was open to the suggestion, promising to carry out a study to “assess the polluter pays principle in relation to agriculture greenhouse gas emissions”, while the ECA is due to publish a more in-depth report on the principle in the coming weeks.
On other fronts, however, the Commission was more reluctant to take action, saying it was unwilling to commit to yearly progress reports on the CAP’s impact towards combating climate change on the basis it was too demanding, a stance that was criticised by the auditors.
“This represents a significant amount of money and we should know its impact on GHG emissions,” one auditor said.
The CAP reform, which aims to be even more ambitious, is currently under intense negotiation, with a deal widely expected to be sealed on the reform by the end of June.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]