A new carbon removal approach in agriculture will contribute to stepping up Europe’s climate ambition, the European Commission reiterated at the launch of its massive plan to cut carbon emissions by 55% before the end of the decade.
The potential of the so-called ‘carbon farming’ to sequester CO2 emissions while regenerating degraded agricultural soil has been thoroughly considered in the Fit for 55 package presented on Wednesday (14 July).
In the communication, the Commission reinforced its commitment to present a carbon farming initiative – already announced in the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy (F2F) – as well as a certification scheme for carbon removals.
Both initiatives should increasingly be deployed in the run-up to 2030, according to one of the main building blocks of the package, the proposed revision of the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry regulation (LULUCF).
There is currently no targeted policy tool to significantly incentivise carbon removals and the protection of carbon stocks, but corporations and some private citizens have started buying land-based carbon removals in voluntary carbon markets to compensate for their residual climate footprint.
The main goal of the new carbon farming approach is to create new business models to increase carbon sequestration, with the positive side-effect of creating opportunities for new jobs and providing incentives for relevant training, reskilling and upskilling.
As explained by an EU official familiar with the proposal, the change in the approach consists of moving towards combining the land-use change and forestry together with the emissions from agriculture because of the great potential for synergies of these sectors.
“We want to showcase that it is possible for these sectors, when combined, to become climate neutral balancing emissions and carbon removals,” the EU official continued.
This still does not mean emissions in the agriculture sector would be zero but that would be offset by enhanced carbon removals.
Complementarity of policy tools
The first legal proposal is expected by the end of the year with the carbon farming initiative, while a carbon removal certification mechanism already announced in the Circular Economy Action Plan is due to be presented by 2023.
However, the environmental conditionality under the reformed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU’s farming subsidy programme, will already incentivise farmers to move towards more sustainable practices, including carbon storage on farmlands.
As a regenerative practice, ‘carbon farming’ has been included in the Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions (GAECs) of the eco-scheme, the new green architecture in the EU’s post-2020 CAP.
In particular, GAEC 2 aims to protect carbon-rich soils such as wetland and peatland, considered among the most effective natural carbon sinks.
The Commission has already suggested the environmentally friendly practices that each member state should include in their CAP national strategic plans.
Indication to increase the carbon uptake of forests and grasslands through carbon farming was included in 14 country recommendations – for Belgium, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, and Spain.
The Commission stressed that CAP public funds and the private funding that should be encouraged by the forthcoming policy actions on carbon farming should complement each other without leading to double payments.
Carbon market hope
The other aspect the Commission will face is making sure that any kind of emission reduction or enhanced carbon removal is carefully accounted for through the certification scheme.
Another EU official explained that this would not be an emissions trading system (ETS) for agriculture but rather some rules on monitoring and reporting carbon sequestration.
Speaking at a recent event, Jorge Pinto Antunes, a cabinet member of the EU’s Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, said the debate will now be on whether these CO2 removal schemes should be result-based or practice-based payments related to the implementation of climate-friendly practices.
“The important thing is that we clearly see that carbon farming is a new green piece,” he said, adding that it should create incentives for farmers to be active partners in this transition.
For Pinto, the Commission will be able to present a robust solution, with the hope to link these policy efforts to a sort of a carbon market, while creating new revenue streams for farmers.
However, the idea of an agricultural carbon market largely remains taboo as European farmers have so far been prevented from participating in such markets that would allow them to get paid for storing carbon in their farmlands by trading greenhouse gases.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]