Europe and Central Asia
4 Nov 2015

Climate cheese: Menu changes to fight global warming

Intensive agriculture's contribution to emissions has been flying under the public's radar. Photo: Martin Lípa
By Trees Robijns

When one thinks about climate change and emissions, the first thing that probably comes to mind is fossil-fuel dependent industries, smoke rising from factories, and exhaust fumes from cars. Agriculture is unlikely to be associated with global warming.

What a lot of people don’t know is that certain sectors of agriculture are responsible for 10.3% of EU greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The numbers

Emissions from agriculture come from two main sources: land use, land use change and forestry (creating farmlands by destroying the original landscape of the area); and the non-land sector, which includes methane-releasing livestock and nitrous oxide-releasing fertilisers and manure.

And while 10.3% may not seem like a big number, consider that the transport sector, which is getting so much attention for its emissions, accounts for around 17%. What’s worse is that The European Commission predicts that EU non-CO2 agriculture emissions will represent a third of total EU emissions by 2050.

Worldwide, the numbers are even more serious. Anywhere from 14 to 50% of emissions come from agriculture (depending on whether we define ‘agriculture’ as just the growing of crops, or also land use changes, food processing and packaging, transport, etc).

A policy challenge

The general assumption is that the emissions from agriculture are less likely to be reducible (lower mitigation potential) because, let’s face it, we all need to eat. So it’s easy to see why currently, agriculture is a bit of an afterthought when it comes to the climate policy.

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But if one looks more closely, agriculture emissions are not all unavoidable. First of all, large parts of agriculture emissions come from foods we eat out of choice (such as meat and dairy), food we throw away, or food we waste on biofuels. Secondly, fertiliser application and manure management can be done in much more climate-friendly ways, even with current technologies.

Policy-wise, the intensive farm lobby is on the offensive, trying to block any progress on tackling agriculture-related emissions. Worryingly, while environment ministers are shying away from tackling the issue, on 22 October 2015, the EU Agricultural Council held a discussion on agriculture’s contribution to climate change, with a clear focus on how to protect farming interests from effective climate action.

In practice, national agriculture ministers seem much more interested in ways to boost exports, especially of meat and dairy products, than in addressing climate change, despite the fact that farmers would be among the worst hit by its effects.

An interesting case in point is the Republic of Ireland, coincidentally also the home country of Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan. According to the most recent figures (from 2012), agriculture contributes over 30% of all the GHG emissions from the country. At the same time, with its ambitious Food Harvest 2020 programme, Ireland aims to increase milk production by 50% in the next five years.

This has led the country to push for specific wording in last year’s European Council conclusions on the 2030 climate and energy targets, aiming to ensure that climate action does not interfere with their productivist agenda.

Looking for a cop out?

While other industries are aiming for complete decarbonisation, the agriculture sector is clearly not. On the contrary, it is looking for ways out. For Ireland, this means planting trees on grasslands to compensate for the emissions from its expanding dairy industry (a strategy that, without safeguards, is questionable in climate terms and a likely disaster for biodiversity).

For the rest of Europe, it might be coupling accounting of existing carbon sinks (these bind the carbon in biomass and prevent the release of GHGs into the atmosphere) like forests or peatlands, with the agriculture sector so that their growth can continue without facing the painful emission cuts other sectors must deliver.  

It is hard to accept that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which is largely centrally managed and absorbs around 40% of the EU budget, is not taking a more active approach to incorporate mitigation measures in a sector that is going to be a major polluter by 2050. Given that farming will have to change, and change in agriculture is notoriously slow, action is urgently needed.

The EU needs to bring all agriculture and land use emissions under a loophole-free emission reduction system. At the same time, we must aim to make our agriculture system and products high quality and ecologically sustainable, while still giving farmers a decent livelihood.

We can’t do that by flooding the market with dairy and meat products, bending emission rules to suit the interests of industrialised farming. Rather, we need a food and farming system that is ecologically and climatically responsible and based on a more balanced consumption model. 

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.