28th Feb 2024

COP28 focuses on EU failure to cut livestock emissions

  • From 2005 to 2021, EU agriculture-related emissions only decreased by three percent (Photo: COP28 UAE)
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For the first time this year, UN climate talks (COP28) have put food systems on the menu, with a whole day dedicated to food and agriculture, a milestone multilateral pledge, and dozens of related events.

Food is responsible for one-third of global greenhouse-gas emissions, mostly through agricultural production and land use. Much CO2 is released at various stages of food production, from forests cleared for fields and pastures to the energy used in industrial processing, packaging and transportation.

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But carbon is not the only culprit. Agriculture generates a whopping 40 percent of all human-induced emissions of methane, a particularly potent gas responsible for 0.5 degrees of the warming of the atmosphere.

As it breaks down much faster than CO2, scientists say world leaders must act on methane emissions now to provide short-term relief to our warming planet.

For the EU, this will be hard to achieve without reforming the livestock industry, which is responsible for over half of the union's agricultural methane. The EU is also the third-largest producer of beef and the second-largest of dairy globally, with livestock representing 40 percent of agricultural revenues.

But with momentum growing at COP28 to curb emissions from food systems, the EU faces growing pressure — in Dubai and at home — to review its climate roadmap.

Momentum for change

Over 130 countries have already signed on to the "UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action", released at the start of COP28.

Parties pledge to curb emissions from agriculture and increase efforts to help farmers adapt to climate change. Signatories include all of the EU's agricultural heavyweights, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

On the ground, food systems activists welcomed the declaration as a step in the right direction, despite concerns it does not include clear targets and timelines for emissions reductions.

"It's really exciting to see food put front and centre by the presidency, it's really exciting that so many countries have signed on to it, but as with all of these declarations, it depends on what they do next. Not just words, but action," said Lucrezia Tincani from the London-based network Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR initiative).

But a big question mark hovers above the EU, which has kept food systems — especially livestock — on the back burner of climate policies.

Its nationally-determined contribution (NDC) — a common roadmap outlining efforts made by member states to reduce emissions under the Paris Agreement — is surprisingly vague on agriculture and fails to even mention livestock, despite a detailed breakdown in other sectors, like transportation, renewables or alternative fuels.

Unequal progress

From 2005 to 2021, agriculture-related emissions only decreased by three percent in the EU, a trend most experts describe as insufficient.

Progress was unevenly shared among member states, decreasing by 10 percent in some but increasing by the same amount in others, including Bulgaria and Ireland.

"Everyone loves to pledge and be seen as the leader, but then it doesn't really manifest in actions as we would like to see," said Nusa Urbancic, CEO of Changing Markets Foundation — a nonprofit aiming to drive the private sector towards more sustainable practices.

Meat is particularly touchy for the EU, as farm lobbies still wield a lot of influence over national and common agricultural policies.

"It's a sector that is hugely subsidised, both in Europe and in the US, and it's really a difficult sector to change," Urbancic said, citing Germany and Denmark as frontrunners in reducing meat production while others, like Italy and France, lag behind.

"As soon as it comes to concrete regulations, there's huge pushback," Green German MEP Jutta Paulus, a member of the EU's delegation at COP28, told EUobserver at COP.

Lobbies have played a key role in derailing past efforts to regulate methane emissions on livestock, for example through the recently updated industry emissions directive.

"It was very clear there would not be a majority in the European parliament if cattle was included," Paulus said. "The agricultural sector, meat and dairy farming especially, is incredibly powerful."

Next steps for the EU

In the lead up to COP, commissioners have highlighted progress made so far to achieve the EU's climate target to reduce emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030, compared to 1990.

"Our domestic greenhouse gas emissions are falling steadily," EU climate commissioner Wopke Hoekstra told the press last month, pointing to the heightened pace of renewable energy rollout.

But Hoekstra called also for "substantial progress in cutting emissions in agriculture."

The EU has several tools to regulate emissions, none of which provide much leverage on member states' agricultural sector.

Number one, the Emissions Trading System (ETS), caps the amount of greenhouse gases industries emit in the energy and transportation sector, but does not cover agriculture.

The second, rules on land, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF), focusing on emissions removal, not reduction, through forestry and improved land use.

Most agricultural emissions reductions fall under the Effort Sharing Regulation, which mandates all members reduce emissions in sectors not covered by the ETS by 40 percent by 2030 on 2005.

But states have a lot of leeway in how they achieve this target, which does not distinguish methane from other greenhouse gases. "It's down to every member state to decide the measures that they want to put in place," Urbancic summarised.

If their COP28 commitments don't push EU members to action, the wind of change may blow from another direction, Urbancic said. "In 2025 we are due to revise the National Emissions Ceilings (NECs) directive, which is a huge opportunity to include methane as an air pollutant. Because it's not just about emissions: it's about the impact it has on people's health, crops and even livestock productivity."

Author bio

Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist covering environmental affairs, climate and aid in Syria, Iraq and Jordan.


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