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20th Jan 2019

Lobbyists play tug-of-war with MEPs on farm emissions

  • Around 40 percent of methane emissions in the EU come from agriculture – mainly through a digestive process in ruminants like cows and goats. (Photo: caese)

How strong is the European agricultural lobby in 2015?

A sign of the political influence of the sector, one of the most experienced in public affairs in Brussels, will emerge on Wednesday (28 October), when MEPs vote on new air quality targets.

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The key question is whether two agriculture-related pollutants, methane and ammonia, will be included in the legislation, which will set emission limits per EU country.

Sources in the European Parliament say that it is difficult to predict the outcome of the vote, and that political groups will likely make up their mind whether to reach a common stance on Tuesday (27 October), a day ahead of the plenary vote in Strasbourg.

The new directive would set ceilings for emissions of a number of pollutants, like particulate matter and nitrogen oxide, for 2030. Member states would then have to decide themselves how to stay below these ceilings.

Before the summer break, the EP's environment committee refused to give the agricultural sector a free pass, and a majority of MEPs in the committee said methane and ammonia limits should be included in the new rules.

This went against the wishes of the EP's agriculture committee, which argued that methane, both a pollutant and a greenhouse gas, is already covered under the EU's climate targets. This argument is only half-justified: methane is indeed a global warming greenhouse gas, but EU countries are only obliged to reduce greenhouse gases in general - a country could, in theory, decide to reduce only CO2 and leave agricultural emissions as they are.

Wednesday's vote will see a repeat of that power struggle.

Food production may "shift to third countries"

The agricultural lobby organisation Copa-Cogeca has said that the proposed reduction targets “are unacceptable, threatening food production”.

“If the methane emission reductions were implemented, the European farming sector would have to reduce production in a number of sectors such as beef by 29.1%, milk by 9.1%, pork by 8,7%, etc”, it said Thursday in a public press release.

A day later, the lobby group sent MEPs an email in which it said it was “gravely concerned by the introduction of methane and ammonia targets that are unfeasible to implement”.

The email, seen by this website, said of the targets: “the only way to reach them is by reducing production in Europe and shift it to third countries”.

Cities: "It's our health"

The farm lobby is not the only interest group trying to sway parliamentarians.

Environmental NGOs and a network of European city governments have been trying to convince MEPs to resist pressure from the agrifood industry.

“It is crucial that we address all pollutants, including ammonia emissions from agriculture: they contribute significantly to poor air quality in cities. Air pollution is the most important environmental health problem in the EU, and is costing our economies and our health”, the urban lobby group Eurocities said in a statement.

Around 40 percent of methane emissions in the EU come from agriculture - mainly through a digestive process in ruminants such as cows and goats. In 2011, 94 percent of ammonia emissions in the EU were caused by agriculture, mainly from manure and fertilisers.

Methane is one of the sources of ozone, while ammonia can transform into particulate matter. These pollutants in turn can contribute to serious health problems, such as asthma, cardiovascular diseases, and can damage the reproductive system.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a Brussels-based green NGO, said the agricultural sector should contribute to cleaning the air, otherwise other sectors will also want to be exempt.

“We are talking about people's lives here”, Sebastien Pant of the EEB told this website.

The votes on Wednesday will not only be about whether to include ammonia and methane, but also whether to stick with the environment committee's decision to make the rules more “ambitious” by setting a binding intermediate target for 2025.

Very broadly speaking, MEPs on the left side of the spectrum can be expected to vote along the lines of the environment committee, while the right side will most likely support the agricultural sector.

However, two days before the vote, the discussions within political groups are not yet settled. The Liberal group, for example, has what one EP source called a “vocal minority” against agricultural targets. “Tuesday's group meeting will be important in terms of where ALDE goes”, the source said.

Meanwhile on Monday, the topic was absent from the agenda of a meeting of environment ministers in Luxembourg, because more discussions at a lower diplomatic level was required.

“At this stage the dossier could not yet be an object of discussion among ministers”, said a source close to the EU presidency, adding that it hopes ministers will reach a common position before the end of the year.

The final targets will be a compromise between the positions of the EP and the member states.

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