EU Strategy is failing to tackle the biggest methane emitter: agriculture

No reduction targets, no mandatory actions to cut methane emissions at farm level, no coherence with existing climate and air quality objectives: these are some reasons why the European Commission’s Methane Strategy will fall short, argues Margherita Tolotto.

This article is also published on Euractiv. Since its publication, the European Commission has released its Methane Strategy, which presents the same shortcomings as the draft version commented below.

Why is it important to focus on methane? Methane is both accelerating climate breakdown and contaminating the air we breathe, generating ground-level ozone that harms people’s health, crops and ecosystems. Yet, up until now no serious action has been taken to limit methane emissions, and a leaked document shows that the European Commission’s strategy expected for October 14th is not up to the challenge.

Methane comes from a range of sources. In the EU in 2017 the energy sector accounted for about 16% of the total methane emissions. 28% came from the waste sector, and the remaining 54% from agriculture; of this share, enteric fermentation of ruminants (belching and flatulence) accounts for about 81%, manure management and use for 17%, and rice cultivation for 1%.

In 2020, the Commission announced that a Methane Strategy covering all sectors – energy, waste and agriculture – was going to be adopted soon. Good news! Or so we thought: the leaked version of the Commission’s strategy, however, leaves a bitter taste in our mouths, as the only sector touched by ‘real action’ is energy. Why? Because it is easy.

To be clear: it is good news that the European Commission aims to reduce methane emissions from the energy sector. The biggest oil and gas companies have already autonomously set their own methane reduction target, in their latest attempt to prove that there could  still be a future for fossil fuels. Therefore, tackling emissions from the energy sector is important, but in itself not enough, as it leaves over 80% of methane emissions unaddressed.

Why then is the Commission deliberately ignoring  agricultural methane even though this accounts for over half of all methane emissions? Because it is a difficult job with strong opposition from the big industrial farming lobby. Yet, cutting methane emissions coming from the fields is absolutely essential.

In its leaked strategy, the Commission mentions the lack of reliable data as the main issue preventing effective action on agricultural methane. However, this is not a valid argument: air pollutant emissions are commonly reported under the NEC Directive using a methodology that the Commission incoherently considers insufficient as a basis for action on methane from agriculture. In the unreasonable scenario of the Commission seriously believing that available data is insufficient, this is still no reason to waste precious time: methane emissions from farming are a climate, health and environmental hazard. If your house is on fire, you do not try to calculate the exact amount of water that is needed to put it out, you immediately start throwing water. This is the time to throw water.

To slash agricultural methane, the Commission could start from the same approach they apply to methane emissions from the energy sector and target ‘super-emitters’, that also exist in the livestock farming sector, e.g. large farms with more than 50 livestock units that account for about 70% of agricultural methane emissions in the EU, and about 40% of all methane emissions.

Further, the Commission should promote a comprehensive set of measures to reduce agricultural methane. The leaked communication only puts forward two solutions: feeding strategies, mainly based on additives, and biogas plants. However, changing animal feed is just an end-of-pipe solution that does not tackle other issues such as ammonia emissions. Ammonia originates from manure, slurry and fertilisation, and is a leading precursor of the particulate matter that pollutes the air we breathe. Turning manure into biogas, unless it is limited to small-scale and on farm-consumption, is not a way forward either, as it risks incentivising more intensive livestock farming, or the use of plants suitable for human consumption to produce more biogas.

Many of the measures that can be taken at farm level to slash methane are also effective in reducing ammonia, and thus constitute a double win for air quality: these include coverage of slurry storages, frequent removal of manure from the stable, small-scale extraction of biogas from slurries, and acidification of the slurry. If the Commission and our governments promoted the implementation of these measures at farm level, coupled with effective monitoring of their application, we would see a remarkable reduction of air pollution and greenhouse gases from agriculture. Still, applying even the maximum technical potential will not be sufficient as they must be accompanied by a reduction in meat and milk production and consumption.

Regrettably, the leaked Methane Strategy barely refers to the fact that “lifestyle and diet changes could also contribute substantially to reducing EU methane emissions”, without any further elaboration on how this critically important measure should be pursued in practice.

The strategy also fails to set binding emissions reduction targets for total methane emissions, neither EU-wide nor for Member States, and avoids any reference to the need for mandatory measures to be adopted at farm level, while official emissions data shows that methane emissions from agriculture have increased since 2013.

The agricultural sector is receiving public money through the Common Agricultural Policy, while no efforts are made to cut pollution and GHG emissions. The polluter-pays principle, included in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, of which the European Commission should be the guardian, requires all polluters to take responsibility for and remedy their pollution. Industrial farming cannot be exempted from obligations deriving from existing air quality laws and the (soon to be) climate law: all sectors must play their part.

In the face of the current environmental, climate and health crises, it is imperative that every cent we spend, every measure we take, are future-proof.

Together with DUH, FNE and the Lake Constance Foundation, the EEB has launched the ‘Clean Air Farming‘ project to help reduce ammonia and methane emissions from agriculture.

The Project Clean Air Farming (LIFE17 GIE/DE/610 Air & Agriculture) is co-financed by the LIFE-Programme of the European Commission.