Wednesday

20th Jan 2021

EP refuses to give farmers free pass on air quality rules

  • The digestive process in ruminants like cows cause methane emissions, which creates health-endangering pollutants (Photo: Russ Allison Loar)

The agriculture sector should not be exempt from new EU rules that limit air pollution, the plenary session of the European Parliament decided on Wednesday (28 October).

It voted to include emission limits for the agriculture-related pollutants methane and ammonia, defying a lobby from the agriculture industry. The legislation deals with ceilings for six pollutants which EU member states are not allowed to exceed by 2030.

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However, while the legislation will include methane, a last-minute oral amendment from French MEP Eric Andrieu passed which excluded "enteric methane", which is caused by the digestive process of livestock.

"This house does not have the power to stop cows from farting and burping", Andrieu said, causing laughter as well as head-shaking from his colleagues.

MEPs also decided to add intermediate binding targets for each EU country by 2025, although they rejected the “more ambitious” targets for 2030 that the EP's environment committee had proposed.

The vote in Strasbourg in the afternoon followed a debate that same morning during which mainly centre-right members of the European Parliament argued in favour of the agriculture sector, and asked for ammonia and methane to be taken out of the legislation.

Nearly all ammonia emissions in the EU are caused by agriculture, while the sector is responsible for the production of 40 percent of methane emissions.

“The very ambitious goal for ammonia is not acceptable and [is] going to be disadvantageous to European farming”, said German centre-right MEP Jens Gieseke, calling for a “proper balance between better air quality and competitive farming”.

“We can't accept Dutch cows being banned from the fields because Europe has carried out a improvident rule”, said Dutch MEP Peter van Dalen, member of the mildly eurosceptic ECR group.

The agriculture-defending MEPs said that methane should be excluded from the air quality directive, because there are already climate targets for methane, which is also a greenhouse gas. But this argument of “double regulation” is not entirely justified because countries will only be obliged to reduce greenhouse gases, and could theoretically focus all attention on other gases and give the agriculture sector a free pass.

Vella's fact-checking

The EU's environment commissioner, Karmenu Vella, disputed the “claims” being made by MEPs.

“There is no need to change the structure of the agriculture sector. No action is needed from small farms, and there is no need to push intensification nor to reduce animal numbers”, said Vella.

He later added that the new rules “will not have any negative effect on animal welfare and will not require keeping them inside as some of you tried to suggest”.

The Maltese politician said that “efforts are needed from all sectors”.

“The cost of current legislation falls almost entirely on industry, transport and households. Only 2 percent of those large costs fall on agriculture. To move forward, sectors that have so far contributed little, will need to do more”, said Vella.

Ambitious but pragmatic

However, Vella also told MEPs they should not lower the ceilings too much, because following the vote, the EP will need to find agreement on the targets with the Council, which represents national governments.

“It will be very important that positions of co-legislators do not diverge too much”, he said, expressing his concern that if the EP started on positions that were “too far from the Council, this would jeopardise the chances of agreement”.

Vella echoed the cautiousness of the rapporteur on the file, British Conservative MEP Julie Girling.

“To those of you who are thinking of voting for even tougher targets: think very carefully”, she said at the start of the debate. She noted national governments had not yet come up with a common position.

“They are waiting for this plenary. Let's not signal intransigence. Let's not play to the gallery. The EP should be ambitious but also pragmatic”, added Girling.

Other MEPs disagreed.

Centre-left German Matthias Groote criticised those who “are already putting their foot on the brake”.

“We shouldn't be throwing in the towel at the beginning of the exercise and lower ambition”, he noted.

His colleague from the British Labour party, Seb Dance, brought to mind the human race is “an amazing adaptive species”.

“We have conquered diseases, we have extended our life expectancy, we even landed on the moon. I refuse to believe that it is beyond our wit to grow our economies, travel the world and farm our land without poisoning the air. If we set ourselves this ambition there is no limit to what we can achieve”, he said.

And the stakes are high: an estimated 400,000 people die prematurely every year due to air pollution.

“Air pollution causes ten times more deaths each year than traffic accidents”, noted British Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder. “The long-term benefits of improving air quality will far outweigh the short-term costs.”

Disappointed environmentalists

Environmental lobby groups expressed their disappointment after the vote, calling it 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”, said ClientEarth in a statement.

The NGO European Environmental Bureau noted the “higher targets were cost-effective and feasible, and … would save more lives”.

The next step in the legislative process is to wait for a common position from national governments, after which representatives from both institutions can begin negotiations for a final compromise.

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

On Wednesday, the European Parliament will vote on new air quality rules. The key question is whether two agriculture-related pollutants, methane and ammonia, will be included in the legislation.

Why are European farmers unhappy?

EU farm ministers will hold a special meeting to discuss the pressures facing farmers across the bloc. But many factors are beyond their control.

MEPs snub regulation of cow methane

Methane is second most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide. But MEPs voted to exclude "enteric methane," which is 80 to 85 percent of agriculture's share of emissions.

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