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EU net-zero aim 'in tatters' as lawmakers fail to shift farm rules, critics charge

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 23 October 2020 17:13 GMT

A French farmer driving a tractor raises a cloud of dust on his field in Blecourt as drought hits France, September 15, 2020. Picture taken with a drone. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

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Failure to curb conversion of natural land to farmland, and lack of green restrictions on farm aid imperil EU climate aims, environmentalists say

By Thin Lei Win

ROME, Oct 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The European Union's ambition to become the world's first climate-neutral continent by 2050 is in jeopardy after its parliamentarians voted to continue supporting planet-heating farming practices, lawmakers and green groups said.

On Friday, the regional bloc's parliament voted in favour of changes to its common agricultural policy (CAP) opposed by environmentalists, including Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, who said the move would worsen the climate crisis.

Under the reforms, a ban on converting protected natural sites to farmland was reversed, and continued drainage of carbon-storing peatlands allowed, a practice critics say accounts for 25% of agricultural emissions in some EU countries.

The package also contained no dedicated budget for protecting nature, something wildlife advocates had sought.

In addition, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted to ring-fence 60% of the CAP budget for direct payments to farmers without attaching specific environmental conditions.

"This kind of common agricultural policy will not contribute at all to reduce our emissions… It will actually endanger the European Union meeting the net zero goal," said Thomas Waitz, an Austrian organic farmer and a Green Party MEP.

But some economists warned that as the grouping faces Britain's exit from Europe and the coronavirus pandemic, its policies need to focus on a range of goals, not just green advances.

"The Green Deal is not just about preserving nature and environment" but doing it "in a way that it compatible with the other objectives of the EU: economic growth and job creation", said David Laborde Debucquet of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Waitz, of Austria, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that attempts by green-leaning politicians to link farm subsidies to environmental efforts were all rejected.

That suggests EU emissions from agriculture will continue to rise, he said.

"We're still financing the emitting of CO2 and other gases with taxpayer money, which is ridiculous," he said.

Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas heating the planet, and is produced through a range of human activities that use fossil fuels, including farming.

The EU has pledged to cut its emissions of carbon dioxide and other climate-heating gases to close to zero by 2050, with remaining emissions offset through measures such as planting more trees or capturing and storing carbon underground.

In a series of tweets on Thursday and Friday, Thunberg had urged MEPs to vote down the agricultural proposal, saying "the eyes of future generations are upon you".

Nick Jacobs, director of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), said CAP reforms were "the first big chance" for the EU to show it was serious about its climate and biodiversity goals.

"Those ambitions now lie in tatters. There is no way to reach net zero or reverse biodiversity loss without a fundamental shift in agriculture and land management," he said.

Harriet Bradley, the EU agricultural policy officer at BirdLife Europe, agreed.

"This is 32% of the next EU budget. Basically they're going to be spending all the resources they have available into funding the problem, rather than solving it, which is just absolutely unbelievable," she said.


A U.N. climate science panel has said global emissions need to be slashed by 45% by 2030 and to net zero by mid-century to have a 50% chance of keeping warming to 1.5C, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Globally, food production accounts for at least a quarter of climate changing greenhouse gas emissions, experts say, including from deforestation, livestock and the use of fertilisers and pesticides.

For example, growing use of nitrogen-based fertilisers for food production is increasing emissions of nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a driver of climate change, international scientists warned earlier this month.

Yet there are no clear goals to reduce the use of such fertilisers, Austrian Green MEP Waitz said.

Europe's parliament is also missing agriculture's "enormous potential to contribute to the climate solution by sequestering CO2 in soil", through changes in farming techniques, such as tilling soil less.

Environmentalists, including former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, say farming that focuses on the health of soils, which experts say store more carbon than the planet's atmosphere and vegetation combined, could help meet climate goals.

Last month, when the European Union's chief executive Ursula von der Leyen laid out her goals for Europe's recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, she unveiled a plan to cut EU greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% from 1990 levels by 2030, up from a previous target of 40%.

A key part of her European Green Deal is a "Farm to Fork Strategy" that aims to redesign food systems to become more environmentally sustainable and reverse the loss of biodiversity.

Friday's vote, however, "is a road to low ambition and would diminish the impact of the new Green Deal", said Marc Tarabella, a Belgium Socialist MEP.

He said he also regretted lawmakers' missed opportunity to simplify many aspects of the CAP, which critics have called unwieldy and overly complex.


Laborde Debucquet, a senior research fellow at IFPRI, said the new CAP falls short in addressing European agriculture's impact on climate change but it is likely a pragmatic compromise.

It does leave space for individual countries to act locally to boost their own green ambitions, he said.

Austrian MEP Waitz said he hopes that is what individual EU countries will do.

"We will strongly push on the member states to take the greenest path possible within the CAP," he said.

But Laborde Debucquet said it was worth taking into account tradeoffs that could arise from decisions such as reducing the use of fertilisers in crops.

For example, if yields go down, more land could be needed - including in other parts of the world - to produce the same amount of food, he said.

Europe should not create "its own little island of organic paradise" and let the rest of the world pay the costs as farming destroys nature elsewhere, he said.

Read more:

Climate primer: Why is everyone talking about 'net zero'?

Meaningless or sensible? Net zero by 2050 divides climate community

EU ministers to agree to make climate neutrality by 2050 binding

(Reporting By Thin Lei Win @thinink, Editing by Laurie Goering (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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