Europe and Central Asia
28 Oct 2016

The Promised Land – sustainable agriculture & the EU climate package

Caithness, Scotland.Photo Credit: Andy Hay (
By Sam Lee-Gammage

Sam Lee-Gammage, Senior Policy Officer with the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), explains why the EU must ‘lead us to the promised land’ – a sustainable food & farming future where the agriculture sector plays its part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and in supporting biodiversity-friendly land use.

Agriculture is central to the climate change story. It’s a no-brainer that practices based on cultivating crops and rearing animals would be particularly exposed to the risks that come with long-term global warming. However, while many people can easily grasp the tough implications of this sector’s vulnerability to climate change, far fewer understand the sector’s equally pressing responsibility to help mitigate the crisis.

Just like any other industry, agriculture needs to recognize an inconvenient truth: its activities produce greenhouse gases – notably methane (CH4) and nitrogen oxide (N20) – that are just as problematic as the more infamous CO2. These emissions must be dramatically reduced if the EU is to honour the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, where it committed itself to keeping global warming to 1.5°C, which, in practice, means slashing emission levels down to zero.

The time to recognize this truth is, quite literally, now. Starting this month, and continuing throughout 2017 at least, the European Parliament and Council will dissect, debate and amend two potentially game-changing proposals for new climate legislation after 2020 – the Effort Sharing Regulation (ESR) and the unwieldly titled Land Use, Land Use Change & Forestry (LULUCF) regulation. Together, they set the targets for Member States’ greenhouse gas emissions, as well as rules for how they can meet them.

Since their long-awaited publication by the European Commission back in July, environmental NGOs – many of whom deem the targets insufficient – have been gearing themselves up for a long, hard struggle to ensure that the proposals are strengthened rather than weakened by competing interest groups.[1]

Until now, the agriculture sector – being a smaller (yet not insignificant) source of greenhouse emissions compared to the energy sector – has not truly felt the burden of collective responsibility. However, according to the Commission’s own modelling, if the EU is to meet the Paris targets, it will need to dramatically reduce emissions of CH4 and N20 in the order of 50% by 2050.[2] But if current trends continue unchecked, only a 2.4% reduction will be achieved by 2030.[3]

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Agriculture needs to puts the ‘share’ into ‘Effort Sharing’ and give up its coveted free pass on emissions. You can bet the farm that this golden ticket will not be given up easily. Agri-business, viewing climate targets as a threat to growth and their export-driven business model, are taking their cue straight out of the Big Oil Playbook: trying to evade emissions obligations by attempting to weaken climate legislation.

Already, in the current draft of the ESR proposal, agriculture will be allowed to dodge up to two thirds of the emission reductions required by ‘offsetting’ them through planting trees and sequestering carbon in soil. While increasing the amounts of carbon stored in forests and soils is essential, it cannot be a substitute for reducing emissions in agriculture but, rather, an additional measure. MEPs are currently being lobbied hard to allow agriculture to offset 100% of its emissions in this way.

This would be disastrous for nature and people alike. Unabated emissions would not only advance the rampant march of climate change, but would also leave EU citizens exposed to the health risks of increasing air pollution from agriculture. Moreover, the offsetting measures themselves threaten farmland biodiversity. Agricultural intensification, with its reliance on pesticides and monocultures, is already a major driver of biodiversity loss. Worryingly, common farmland birds (such as the corn bunting, goldfinch, lapwing and skylark) have declined by almost 50% in the last 30 years[4].To add salt to the wound – as we have seen in Ireland – single species tree planting, nominally established to offset agricultural emissions, is commonly taking place on marginal farmland, thereby replacing natural nature-rich habitats with nature-poor tree monocultures. Disturbingly, on a continent-wide scale, 2000km2 of European grasslands – highly beneficial for biodiversity – are being lost annually, and a 30% chunk of this is due to afforestation. And yet these grasslands actually store quite a lot of carbon already.

Things do not have to be this way. And this is why the ESR and LULUCF debates matter – this is a make or break moment in the global climate change story. MEPs and Member States can choose to strengthen the EU’s climate package rather than rip it apart. The European Commission can choose to order a Fitness Check of the broken Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and instigate real reform rather than continuing the same old ‘subsidies for nothing’. The European Council can choose to champion a brighter future – a food and farming system that plays its part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and in supporting biodiversity-friendly land use. They can choose to lead us to a sustainable Promised Land.


On November 9th, Sam will be speaking at the European Parliament at an event hosted by the Committee of the Regions and organised by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. He will contribute to a discussion on how the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) can be used to drive climate change mitigation and adaptation in the agriculture sector.


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.

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.