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23rd Sep 2019

MEPs snub regulation of cow methane

  • Ruminant digestion is an important source of methane, an air pollutant and a greenhouse gas with a global-warming potential 25 times stronger than that of carbon dioxide (Photo: Neorg)

It was perhaps not Eric Andrieu's most stately speech in the European Parliament.

But when the centre-left French MEP tabled a last-minute change to new air pollution rules, he did manage to elicit laughter and applause from several of his colleagues.

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“At the risk of disappointing you, mister president, the European Parliament does not yet have the power to stop cows from farting or burping,” said Andrieu, in Wednesday 28 October's plenary session. The vice-chair of the EP's agriculture committee heard many of his fellow MEPs laugh, and smiled.

However, cow farts and burps are not so funny when you consider their impact on the air quality and health in Europe. They are a matter of life or death.

The digestive process of ruminant animals – cows, goats, sheep – is an important source of methane, a greenhouse gas that is contributing to potentially catastrophic global warming. This is why people with a vegan diet of no dairy or meat products generally have a much lower carbon footprint than meat lovers.

The European Commission had proposed methane as one of the six pollutants whose emissions must be capped at the country-level and has suggested ceilings for each of the pollutants for every 28 EU member states.

Enteric methane

After Andrieu made his fart joke, MEPs passed his amendment, which stated that EU countries will have to limit their methane emissions “excepting emissions of enteric methane produced by ruminant livestock”.

Those nine words were received with praise from the agriculture sector, which according to a report from the European Environment Agency, was the main sector responsible for methane emissions in the EU in 2012. Agriculture accounts for 50 percent, waste for 31 percent, and energy for 19 percent of overall emissions.

“[Agriculture lobby groups] Copa and Cogeca believe that the adoption of the oral amendment from MEP Eric Andrieu is a step in the right direction, and we recognise the cross-party support for this intervention,” a Copa-Cogeca spokesperson told this website by e-mail.

Although the agriculture lobby failed to persuade MEPs to exclude from the legislation ammonia, another agriculture-related pollutant, the Andrieu amendment may give them an almost-free pass on methane.

According to European Commission spokesperson Enrico Brivio, enteric methane accounts for between 80 to 85 percent of methane emissions in the EU, although the percentage does vary by country.

And because the overall methane emissions ceilings have not changed accordingly, it may mean that the waste and energy sector will have to be restricted further, to pick up the slack on reduction efforts not required from the agriculture sector.

Threat to food production?

Copa-Cogeca, for its part, said that enteric methane emissions “are difficult to monitor and to control”.

“Possible ways of reducing those emissions, such as feeding additives, do not apply equally to all agricultural models,” it noted, adding that “if our production is cut, demand in Europe and in the world will be met from non-EU countries which have less stringent environmental legislation than we do”.

However, scientific sources say that enteric methane emissions can be reduced.

“Many opportunities exist to reduce enteric methane (CH4) and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per unit of product from ruminant livestock,” Joanna Knapp wrote in a 2014 article.

Professor of Environmental Epidemiology at the Utrecht University Bert Brunekreef noted that “enteric fermentation is the largest single source of anthropogenic (e.g. modifiable) CH4 emissions”.

“As we have the ambition to tackle methane emissions, it would be strange to attempt this without tackling its main man-made source,” he told this website via e-mail.

Up next: compromises

The EP does not have the final word on the air quality rules. It needs to come to an agreement with national governments. They, however, are still in the process of working out a common position.

On Wednesday (25 November), a discussion on the topic is scheduled during the Working Party on the Environment, a preparatory Brussels body of the member states.

The question is: will member states pick up the battle with the EP to put enteric methane back in the pollutant limits – which they will have to enforce themselves – or leave it out? Previously, France and the UK had already lobbied to water down limits for agriculture-related pollutants.

For its part, the European Commission, which will mediate negotiations between parliament and member states aimed at reaching a compromise deal, had not included in its impact assessment the possibility of a get-out-of-gaol card for enteric methane.

“The Commission is still considering the implications in detail”, spokesperson Brivio said Thursday (19 November).

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