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A regressive agricultural policy might be hindering Europe’s quest to become carbon neutral. 

The Problem with the European Union’s Agricultural Policy

The European Union claims to be a leader in implementing climate change mitigation strategies. Under the Paris agreement, it has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% and produce 32% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. The European Commission’s new President Ursula von der Leyen wants to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. 

However, the EU has ignored a key area in its fight against climate change: agriculture, which is responsible for about 10% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. Its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), experts warn, encourages environmentally destructive farming practices that cause large scale emissions and the degradation of natural resources at an alarming rate. The continent’s rich biodiversity has also suffered because of those practices.

Launched in 1962 to sustain the EU’s food supplies by boosting the productivity of farmlands, the CAP is a cornerstone of Europe’s agricultural policy. With a budget of more than €58 billion a year, it provides financial support to some 12 million farmers across Europe.

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A report by Alliance Environnement, a union of environmental advocacy groups, finds that the CAP has allowed farmers to plough up permanent grasslands, thus releasing large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It also allowed large-scale cultivation on peatlands which store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. 

Wetlands in Europe were species-rich habitats performing valuable ecosystem services such as flood protection, water quality enhancement, food chain support, and carbon sequestration. However, the CAP encouraged farmers to convert vast tracts of wetlands into agricultural lands causing significant biodiversity loss. Intensive use of pesticides has also led to species loss in many parts of Europe including France, which receives the largest agricultural subsidy under CAP.

An investigation by Greenpeace revealed that CAP funds provide direct incentives for the widespread use of harmful and polluting agricultural practices. More than half of the farms examined by Greenpeace in seven EU countries had received payments totaling €104 million despite being the highest emitters of ammonia in their countries. Ammonia runoff from fertilisers and slurry manure has led to the rapid growth of algae in rivers, lakes, and oceans in Europe choking plants and animals of oxygen as well as causing air pollution.

Another report reveals the EU’s farming sector has shown no decline in emissions since 2010 due to a lack of effective environmental regulations in the CAP. Even if an individual state wanted to introduce new regulations in the agricultural sector, CAP provisions would not allow for them.

According to WWF, CAP has done very little to effectively support low-carbon and nature-friendly farming because it only supports market-driven high-input farming practices whilst disregarding climate commitments. It has demanded major reforms in the EU’s agricultural policy to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint.

“We can achieve wins for both the climate and the farming sector’s sustainability by cutting emissions rapidly, and adopting practices that help store more carbon in soils and landscapes,” says Imke Lübbeke, head of climate and energy, WWF. “The EU’s draft long term climate strategy shows that agriculture can and should do more to achieve net-zero emissions in Europe.”

Efforts to fix CAP are hampered by a lack of political consensus among the member states. A recent meeting of EU agriculture ministers to revise the CAP with green architecture and eco-schemes failed to yield any positive results. The new amendments and proposals are a source of political divisiveness among the member states.

With the election of German minister Ursula von der Leyen as the European Commission’s new President, the energy industry in Germany, and the rest of the EU, is likely to witness a major transition from coal to clean energy sources.

Germany, the biggest electricity market in the European Union, has become the EU’s poster child for clean energy with its decision to shut down all 84 of its coal-fired power plants by 2038.

A study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems had found that renewable energy has already overtaken coal as Germany’s main source of energy in 2018.

The country generated significantly less electricity from coal-fired power stations in the first half of this year. Generation from brown coal was down by 21% and hard coal was down by 24%. Emissions from its power sector fell by 20 million tons of CO2–19% of total emission– pointing at a dramatic shift in the country’s energy industry and carbon footprint.

How much of Germany’s energy is renewable?

Currently, more than 40% of Germany’s electricity generation–approximately 157 terawatt-hours–for the public power supply comes from renewable sources, such as wind, solar, biomass, and hydropower.

Although many European countries have been following Germany’s footsteps, the EU has not so far witnessed a real momentum for renewable energy. But with the election of the European Commission’s first female president Ursula von der Leyen, the first German politician to be selected to the post in the last 50 years, a major shift in the EU’s energy industry might be in the offing.

In her candidacy speech at the EU parliament, Von der Leyen said she intended to make climate and the environment top priorities in all policy areas while pledging to strengthen the EU’s short-term goal on greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Our most pressing challenge is keeping our planet healthy. This is the greatest responsibility and opportunity of our times,” she said. “I want Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050. To make this happen, we must take bold steps together. Our current goal of reducing our emissions by 40% by 2030 is not enough. A two-step approach is needed to reduce CO2 emissions by 2030 by 50, if not 55%.”

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Ursula von der Leyen wants Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050.

Von der Leyen, who will begin her five-year term in November, will introduce a Green Deal for Europe in her first 100 days in the office.  She also pledged to unlock €1 trillion (US$1.1 trillion) over the next decade for climate investment and to turn parts of the European Investment Bank into a dedicated climate bank, which would channel private investments to climate and clean-energy projects in every corner of the EU.

As Green parties have already become a political force in the new European Parliament it will be easier for Von der Leyen to push the EU towards renewable energy transition.

Recent energy investment trends in Europe also hold promise. The European Investment Bank (EIB) recently committed €4 billion of financing for renewable-related projects.  Private capital is also mobilising. Investment firm Glennmont Partners has launched an €850 million fund for European green energy while the European Commission and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) have launched a €100 million pilot investment fund to incubate capital intensive startups working on clean energy innovation. The European Commission also has been supporting various member states including Lithuania and Portugal to strengthen their renewable energy infrastructure.

Last year, the EU produced 17.5% of its power needs from renewable sources, moving closer to its 2020 goal of 20% clean energy generation. While 11 member states have met this goal, other members are lagging behind indicating that they might miss the target next year.  

The EU has already set a new renewable energy target of 32% renewable energy generation by 2030.  To reach this ambitious target, it might need to implement stricter policies including tougher fiscal and regulatory interventions to curb further investments in the fossil fuel industry and progressively weed off dependency from it. 

 

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