MEPs vote to cap some agricultural emissions, but not cow burps

Gases caused by belching cows were exempted from the bill. [Jim Champion/Flickr]

The European Parliament today (28 October) backed proposed caps on methane and ammonia in draft legislation to reduce air pollution, setting up tough negotiations with the Council of Ministers over the bill. 

But, after pressure from Europe’s farming lobby, MEPs gave an exemption to enteric methane. 

Enteric methane is mostly caused by animals like cows burping. It represents a “significant share of methane emissions” from agriculture, according to the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). It was not covered by the European Commission’s proposal in any case, EURACTIV was told by Parliament sources. 

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, which has a notoriously powerful lobby and is heavily subsidised by the EU, is responsible for 40% of methane emissions in the EU and 95% of ammonia pollution, according to the EEB. 

MEPs were voting in Strasbourg on a report by the Parliament’s Environment Committee on the revised National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive, which limits different types of air pollution in each EU nation. 

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.

The Environment Committee had strengthened targets in the European Commission’s original proposal. It is the first time the Commission has tried to cap methane. 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 today mean that the 29% was watered back down to 27%.

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.

Methane emissions would be covered by separate EU legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions, they said during the debate.

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

The Parliament’s Agriculture Committee had called for the methane and ammonia targets to be dropped from the legislation before the vote.Despite that, the Environment Committee report on the NEC Directive was narrowly passed by the committee ahead of today’s vote. 38 voted in favour, 28 against, and two abstained.

Before today’s vote, Copa-Cogeca, a Brussels-based lobby association representing European farmers and agri-cooperatives, emailed MEPs. It warned that production would be shifted outside of the EU, if stronger targets backed by the Environment Committee became law.

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

Realistic targets

Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella told MEPs today, “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.”

Vella said there was absolutely no need to alter the structure or reduce the number of animals to hit the targets in the Commission proposal.

He poured cold water on claims by some MEPs that methane cuts would force animals to be kept inside, to the detriment of their welfare.

Governments such as the UK had also told MEPs they were against the bolstered bill.

Tough negotiations ahead

Before the bill can become law, an identical text must be agreed by the Parliament with the Council of Ministers.

Environment ministers on 15 June demanded flexibility in meeting EU air quality targets, after dropping a cap on methane emissions from their version of the draft pollution rules.

>>Read: Environment ministers want flexible air pollution targets

>>Read: Governments ditch EU methane limits

British MEP Julie Girling (Conservatives), the lead lawmaker on the bill, voted against her own report after a coalition of left and liberal MEPs pushed for the stronger targets.

Girling, a member of the European Conservatives and Reformist group, argued that the stronger targets would derail negotiations with the Council of Ministers. 

Before today’s vote, she urged lawmakers to “vote responsibly” by not supporting lower ceilings and supporting the ammonia amendments.

She also called for financial help for farmers, a scientific review of ammonia by 2020, and financial help for farmers in the mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy greening initiative.

>>Read: Special Report: Can the (new) CAP deliver on sustainability?

“Think very carefully, we don’t have a position from the Council. Let’s not signal intransigence, let’s not indulge in grandstanding, let’s not play to the gallery,” she said.

The Council and Parliament were seen as so opposed over the bill that the NEC Directive narrowly missed being axed as part of the Commission’s drive for ‘better regulation’.

>>Read: Spectre of better regulation haunts air pollution bill

In December, Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said the rules would be changed during three-way talks between the institutions to make a deal more likely.

But Matthias Groote (SPD), warned against weakening the targets.

The S&D lawmaker said, “Some people are putting their foot on the brake even before the negotiations with the Council.  We shouldn’t be throwing in the towel at the beginning of the exercise.”

EPP member Peter Liese (CDU), of Germany, said, “We see a danger that because of the [Environment Committee] amendments, we will achieve nothing.

“People will see that the European Parliament is going too far and I think we are.”

Liese said MEPs should base their position on the Commission’s original legislative proposal.

“That is the red line for the EPP,” he said, “Without that we are not prepared to play along.”

Deaths and climate change

Catherine Bearder (Liberal Democrats), said that more people die from poor air quality than from smoking.

Labour’s Seb Dance said the figure was closer to 700,000. Over a decade that was seven million deaths, the same as the population of Bulgaria, he added.

“For the first time we are addressing agriculture and immediately there’s a main lobby out there saying ‘not agriculture’. Every sector needs to contribute,” said Bas Eickhout, a Dutch green.

EFDD MEP Piernicola Pedicini (Movimento 5 Stelle) blamed national governments for calling for “realistic” targets,

He said removing methane from the bill would “weaken the prospects of an ambitious” UN Climate Change Conference.

World leaders will meet in Paris on 30 November in an effort to limit global warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

“The EU has to decide whether wants to protect business of the few or the health of the many, he said, “The EU has to decide whether to have worse air pollution standards than China.”

“If the EU wants to be credible at Paris, we need to reduce methane emissions,” said Estefania Torres Matrinez (Gue/NGL), of Spain’s Podemos.

But UKIP’s Roger Helmer (EFDD) had a different view. He supported ceilings for sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide emissions “because unlike carbon dioxide, they are genuine emissions that damage health.

Helmer added, “This EU plan has different targets for different countries. What more do we need to show these are national decisions that should be made at national level? But I know in my country we won’t be able to do that unless Britain votes to leave the EU!”

Olaf Stuger (Partij voor de Vrijheid), a Dutch member of the Europe of Nations and Freedom group, questioned the entire basis of the bill.

He said that Commission figures were never credible. Trusting Commission figures he said, was like trusting Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to monitor the stock of elephants. 

Louise Duprez, senior policy officer for air pollution at the European Environmental Bureau, said, “Despite evidence that the higher targets were cost-effective and feasible, and that they would save more lives, MEPs failed to seize the opportunity. This means fewer lives saved and higher costs to society. With the Volkswagen scandal fresh in their minds, MEPs had a major opportunity to right a wrong and take action to clean up Europe’s air. In the weeks and months ahead, they have a major responsibility to secure an outcome that is going to prevent the further loss of human life.”

Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder said, "Air pollution causes ten times more deaths each year than traffic accidents, yet we are still not doing enough to tackle this invisible killer. These ambitious pollution limits will ensure that every sector, from industry to agriculture, plays it part in cleaning up Europe's air.

"The long-term benefits of improving air quality will far outweigh the short-term costs."

Alan Andrews, clean air lawyer for ClientEarth, said: “This is a missed opportunity. Thousands of people will die or suffer debilitating illnesses like heart disease, asthma attacks and strokes because the parliament failed to adopt stricter pollution limits.

“The British Government’s fingerprints are all over this. They have been acting as a mouthpiece for farming instead of working to protect our health from air pollution. 

“It seems they have learned nothing from the Volkswagen scandal. Once again our politicians have shown that they serve special interests rather than the people who vote for them. Regulations written by industry for industry are in nobody’s long term interests.”

Anna Lisa Boni, EUROCITIES secretary general, said, "Binding 2025 targets for major pollutants including ammonia is good news for cities, but we would like these to be stricter. Air pollution is the most important environmental health problem in Europe, and while it is concentrated in our cities, many sources are beyond our control. Stricter national limits can go a long way to improving air quality for the three quarters of our population that lives in urban areas.”   

“We are happy that MEPs have put citizens’ interests and wishes first and not given in to vested interests, particularly to pressure from farmers and agribusiness,” said Anne Stauffer, HEAL deputy director, “even though we would like to have seen a higher ambition”.

Copa-Cogeca secretary-general Pekka Pesonen said, “We welcome as a positive move European Parliament's vote concerning methane in the National Emission Ceilings Directive We urge the EU Commission to hear this message. But we still have serious concerns about the ammonia reduction targets which pose a serious challenge to us, jeopardising food production which is critical with world food demand set to rise by 60% by 2050.”

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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