The European Commission’s communication on sustainable carbon cycles promising a new source of revenue for farmers received a lukewarm response from the farming sector on Wednesday (15 December) while NGOs blasted it for letting real polluters off the hook.
In a bid to increase removals of carbon from the atmosphere, the long-awaited communication sets out actions to support carbon farming and upscale the business model to better reward land managers for carbon sequestration and biodiversity protection.
There is currently no targeted policy tool to significantly incentivise carbon removals and the protection of carbon stocks.
However, this has not stopped corporations and some private citizens from buying land-based carbon removals in voluntary carbon markets to compensate for their residual climate footprint.
To address this, the Commission aims to propose an EU regulatory framework for the certification of carbon removals by the end of 2022.
This way, the communication outlines that carbon farming initiatives should contribute 42Mt of CO2 storage to Europe’s natural carbon sinks by 2030, making agriculture a key strategic sector for achieving the EU’s carbon-neutral goals.
Speaking at the strategy’s unveiling, Commission executive vice-president Frans Timmermans called carbon removals “vital” in keeping the EU’s climate commitments within reach.
“Carbon removals create new business opportunities […] for farmers, for foresters, and other land managers,” he said.
He added that they could benefit from a new source of income in exchange for rolling out carbon farming practices and storing carbon in soil, trees, shrubs, wetlands, and peatlands.
The Dutch Commissioner responsible for delivering the Green Deal also pointed out that these practices are “also great for nature and for the sustainability of our food supply”.
The communication lays down the basis to prepare the necessary rules to ensure carbon removals are “credible and have the desired effect,” he added.
EU agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski took the opportunity to stress that agriculture and forestry are “allies in the fight against climate change”.
“Carbon farming will strengthen the contribution of farmers and foresters to the decarbonisation of our economy, by providing extra income for farmers, while protecting biodiversity, making farms more resilient to natural disasters and ensuring food security,” he said.
Mixed reaction from farmers
However, the communication has sparked mixed reactions from the EU farming community.
While EU farmers’ association COPA-COGECA welcomed the inclusion of carbon farming in the political agenda, saying it offered a “great opportunity” for farmers and forest owners, it warned that many uncertainties remain.
In particular, the association expressed concerns over how a carbon credit system will be established, stressing that this must be “market-orientated”.
Moreover, it pointed out that the communication does not clarify how and which sector shall be accredited for carbon removals through carbon farming.
“Carbon farming is only part of the solution to climate change but should not substitute actions to reduce emissions,” Cogeca President Ramon Armengol added.
On the other hand, the small farmers’ association European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC) blasted the communication, calling it “another step towards the financialisation of agriculture and land speculation” which will “set the European Commission on the path to cause even more climate and social damage”.
“It is clear that the carbon farming initiative will amplify the harmful processes that already exist,” the group said in a statement, calling carbon markets a “fake solution” that will neither succeed in combating climate change or the biodiversity crisis nor support rural areas and fair access to healthy food.
It added that the initiative allows large companies in the energy or IT sector, among others, to continue their polluting activities under the guise of being environmentally friendly, as they can “compensate” their emissions by purchasing carbon credits related to land that is supposed to be used to grow food.
“In practice, this will increase the power of these large companies at the expense of peasant farmers,” they warned.
Real polluters let off the hook
This sentiment was also echoed by green campaign group Greenpeace, who said that the initiative “risks becoming an excuse for big polluters to stall their own climate action”.
“Real cuts in greenhouse gas emissions have to be the priority – carbon removals can add to cuts, but we can’t let polluters use removals to pretend they’re reaching climate targets,” Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director Marco Contiero said.
The NGO also points out that the new plan pledges support to what they say are unproven technologies, such as carbon capture and storage.
Meanwhile, Renew Europe MEP Martin Hojsík also cautioned that the EU must be careful not to create a system that will “reward laggards, create perverse incentives or lead farmers into unfavourable contracts and uncertainty”.
“Setting up a scheme that would focus only on counting the carbon and ignoring other parameters of healthy soils would solve nothing climate-wise,” he warned, stressing the need to first establish sound monitoring and accounting mechanism in the EU, including the adoption of an ambitious EU soil health law.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/ Alice Taylor]