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19th Oct 2019

Commission's methane delay is 'present for agribusiness'

  • Manure and the digestive systems of ruminant livestock are an major source of methane emissions (Photo: Werktuigendagen Oudenaarde)

The European Commission is in no rush to propose legislation tackling methane emissions, to the chagrin of left-wing members of the European Parliament.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas which is much more efficient in trapping heat than carbon dioxide (CO2). Its main source in the EU is from agriculture.

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In combination with other sources of air pollution, methane can lead to ozone formation – which is not only bad for the environment, but also for human health.

In December 2013, the commission proposed that each EU member state should have a national ceiling of methane emissions, as part of a revision of an air quality directive which limits other pollutants.

But following successful lobbying by the farming sector, all methane targets were removed from the final deal, struck between national governments and the European Parliament in 2016.

The commission added a declaration to the final directive – published as law on 14 December 2016 – saying it would "consider measures for reducing [methane] emissions, and where appropriate, submit a legislative proposal to that purpose".

Almost one and a half years later however, it appears that the commission is still in the 'consideration' phase.

The commission did not comment on the record, but made an EU official available to EUobserver to send a written statement.

"The commission's Joint Research Centre will present in the first half of 2018 a technical report on methane emissions and their contribution to ozone," the official said.

"Based on this work, the commission will, in 2018-2019, assess the potential for reductions across the northern hemisphere and their impacts on concentrations, with a view to identifying appropriate methane reduction objectives in the context of a future hemispheric approach, in cooperation with the UNECE Convention on Long Range and Transboundary Air Pollution, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the Global Methane Initiative, as appropriate."

Left-wing members of the European Parliament who were involved in the negotiations for the air quality directive were not happy with the commission's response.

'Postponing the problem'

"No, the commission's proposal does not meet our expectation to reduce methane emissions and actually postpones the problem," wrote Italian MEP Piernicola Pedicini, of the Five Star Movement.

"During the negotiations on the NEC [national emissions ceilings] directive, we stressed the importance of including six pollutants as originally proposed by the commission in its 2013 proposal but member states managed to exclude methane from the scope of the directive which turned into a present to the agribusiness sector," he added.

Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout said it was "highly disappointing" that the commission did not mention concrete measures or a legislative proposal to reduce methane emissions.

"This is the perfect moment to take legislative action, since there is an unique opportunity for the EU to internationally lead the way on the issue of methane pollution," said Eickhout.

He said that the EU should set a good example by reducing methane by adopting binding emission reduction obligations.

"As one of the biggest economies in the world we have the obligation to do so," he noted.

His Czech colleague Katerina Konecna, a member of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia and the parliament's far left group, said she also was not happy with the commission's approach.

"The withdrawal of the inclusion of methane emissions in NEC has been very hard for the [parliament] and we hoped that [the commission] will fulfil its obligations," she said.

The MEP who coordinated the legislative proposal on air quality file through the parliament at the time was much more optimistic.

"I am happy that the commission is preparing a report via the JRC for this spring," said Julie Girling, a member of the UK's Conservative party, and part of the European People's Party.

"My expectation was for further legislative work on methane reduction to begin in the next legislature i.e. 2019-2024," she said.

"I think we are on track for having the groundwork completed in good time, but of course we will be dependent on the outcome of the European elections and the orientation of the next commission," Girling added.

According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), methane emissions shrunk by 42 percent between 2000 and 2015. However, in agriculture methane emissions only decreased by seven percent in the same period.

Moreover, in recent years the reduction in methane emissions almost flat-lined.

The agricultural sector was responsible for 53 percent of total methane emissions in 2015, the EEA said. A large part of that was due to the digestive process of livestock (cows, goats, sheep), and stored manure.

Other sources for methane emissions are fossil fuel production and waste management.

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