EU emissions limits for agricultural gases face uncertain future

Cows are a major source of agricultural emissions. [US Department of Agriculture/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Agriculture and climate change: the role of the new CAP.

SPECIAL REPORT / Efforts to cap agricultural emissions harmful to both the environment and human health face fierce opposition and tough negotiations before they can finally become EU law.

The proposed revisions to the National Emission Ceilings (NEC ) Directive are due to be thrashed out in talks between national governments and the European Parliament in late February.

The trialogue – three way talks with the European Commission – must overcome differences between member states and MEPs. Both Council and Parliament must agree an identical text before the NEC can become law.

EU governments have already moved to strike the methane cap from their version of the bill, setting up a difficult fight to keep it in the text.

>>Read: Governments ditch EU methane limits

“Virtually all member states were applauding the ambition of the Commission proposal, but when it comes to accepting what they actually have to do to get there , they find it very difficult,” said Julie Girling, the lead MEP on the bill.

Discussing the methane and ammonia caps, she told EURACTIV, “I expect it to be a real sticking point.”

But, she added, she would do her best to deliver the position voted for by the Parliament.

Air pollution is responsible for the deaths of 400,000 citizens a year. The bill caps six major pollutants – nitrogen oxides (NOX), particular matter (PM2.5), sulphur dioxide (SO2), methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3) and non-methane volatile organic compounds.

Methane is a more short-lived, but much more powerful global-warming greenhouse gas, than carbon dioxide. It also transforms into ozone, an air pollutant. Ammonia causes soil nitrification and acidification, and transforms naturally to become fine particles harmful to human health.

Agriculture, is heavily subsidised by the EU through the Common Agricultural Policy, and is responsible for 40% of methane emissions in the EU and 95% of ammonia pollution.

It is the first time that the European Commission has tried to cap methane. Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella told MEPs in October, “To move forward, sectors that have so far done little will need to do more. […]Efforts are needed from all sectors, including the agriculture industry. What we are after is better and healthier agriculture.”

Double regulation?

But critics counter that, as a global warming gas, it should already be covered by 2030 climate change commitments. In October 2014, EU leaders agreed that greenhouse gas emissions should be slashed by at least 40% by 2030.

That formed the basis of the EU’s negotiating position at December’s UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, which successfully secured an agreement to cap global warming.

That could put political momentum behind lowering all greenhouse gases in future EU legislation, but sap it when it comes to targeting specifically ammonia and methane in the NEC Directive.

Better regulation

Such were the differences between the two camps that the draft legislation was under threat from the Commission’s drive for better regulation.

Brussels originally planned to withdraw the bill because of fears the gap was too wide to bridge, but it ultimately stayed the axe.

The Commission will play an important role in the talks, as the different capping levels will require officials’ technical expertise to explain the impact of any changes.

>>Read: Circular economy package to be ditched and re-tabled

Despite the spectre of better regulation haunting the bill, divisions remain – even within the Parliament itself. Some governments, including the UK, pushed for their MEPs to oppose it, earlier in the legislative process.

The Parliament’s Environment Committee had strengthened targets in the European Commission’s original proposal. The executive is pushing for a 30% methane reduction by 2030, which was backed by the Environment Committee, and a 27% ammonia cut, which MEPs increased to 29%.

But amendments passed by the Parliament in plenary in October meant that the 29% was watered back down to 27%.

>>Read: MEPs vote to cap some agricultural emission, but not cow burps

The ammonia target was opposed by some MEPs, notably the European People’s Party. The EPP, the largest group in the Parliament, branded the cap as unrealistically tough.

MEPs ultimately voted to include ammonia and methane and for binding 2025 targets to ensure countries were on track for 2030 goals.

They did exempt enteric methane, mostly caused by animals like cows burping, but that was not covered in the Commission’s proposal in the first place.  Enteric methane represents a “significant share of methane emissions” from agriculture, according to the European Environmental Bureau (EEB)

The Parliament’s Agriculture Committee had called for the methane and ammonia targets to be dropped from the legislation before the vote.

Environmental and farming lobbies

Environmental campaigners have accused the agricultural lobby of trying to force the methane and ammonia caps to be dropped.

Louise Duprez, senior policy officer on air at the European Environmental Bureau said, “There is strong pressure from the agri-business lobby to scrap methane limits and significantly water down ammonia limits.

“Methane and ammonia contribute to harmful ozone and particulate matter levels, causing premature deaths, allergies, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and high associated healthcare costs.”

Before the Parliament’s vote, farmers’ association Copa-Cogeca wrote to MEPs warning the industry will quit the European Union if they voted to cap agricultural gas emissions.

>>Read: Farming lobby to MEPs: We will quit EU if emissions capped

Pieter de Pous, the EEB’s policy director said at the time, “Amendments to exempt farmers from pollution limits will favour the large agro-businesses who do most of the polluting, but they are certainly not in the public interest.”

Yesterday, Copa-Cogeca said the Council’s position was going in the right direction by dropping methane.

“But some countries still face serious problems in implementing the proposed ammonia targets,” Copa-Cogeca Secretary-General Pekka Pesonen said.

”This is not good for the economy, society or the environment,” he told EURACTIV.

Cutting agricultural production in Europe went against the Climate Change deal in Paris, which called for climate change adaptation without endangering food production, he claimed.

Air pollution has different particulate matter (PM) components – smoke, dirt and dust form coarse particles known as PM10 and metals and toxic exhaust from smelting, vehicle exhaust, power plants and refuse burning forming fine particles called PM2.5.

The 2008 Air Quality Directive aimed at streamlining and tightening EU legislation dealing with pollution and air standards. It is now under review.

The directive obliges member states must cut exposure to fine particulate matter by an average of 20% by 2020, based on 2010 levels.

Many of the policies grow out of a 2005 strategy on air pollution, which sought to cut sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 82%, nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 60%, volatile organic compounds by 51%, ammonia (NH3) by 27%, and primary fine particulates by 59% compared to the levels of 2000.

Health advocates say the cost of cutting emissions through better smokestack scrubbers, cleaner-burning vehicles and a shift to renewable fuels would be more than offset by savings in treating complications of bad air.

Part of the package is the National Emissions Ceiling (NEC) Directive. It sets post-2020 national emissions ceilings (NEC) for six air pollutants, such as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NOx).

Jean-Claude Juncker, the new President of the European Commission, pledged to refocus the EU executive on the bigger political issues of the day and cut regulations seen as unnecessary or hampering business activity.

Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans was given a mandate to cut red tape and deliver “better regulation”.

He has analysed pending legislation left over from the Barroso Commission and decided which should be dropped.

The Commission's "better regulation" drive has caused unease with environmental organisations, trade unions and consumer groups, which have called on the Commission not to drop proposed gender and environmental laws.They called on the Commission to keep those laws on the Commission's 2015 work programme, presented in December.

Responding to those calls, Timmermans announced that the Commission would ditch the Circular Economy package to replace it with “more ambitious” legislation in 2015, and change the NEC Directive, to ease its passing into EU law.

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