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The Climate Crises and the EU’s Agricultural Policies


The climate crisis is picking up speed, and it still doesn’t look like humanity is adjusting its habits fast enough to meet its self-set target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. The European Union (EU) strived to tackle this problem by implementing the Green Deal, which led to the most ambitious multi-year plan ever in the agricultural sector. But is it enough?

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and the Green Deal

In 2019, Europe aimed to become the first climate-neutral continent. To do so, the EU adopted a package of regulations which were designed to massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as protect and restore environmental sites. As a milestone along the way, the regulations call for the EU to reduce 55% of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. This package of regulations is called the European Green Deal, and it affects almost all areas of EU legislation, from energy to traffic and from industry to agriculture and food security. The latter is especially interesting, as the agricultural sector of the EU has not only the power to pass regulations but also provides significant funds for farmers. 

Approximately one third of the EU budget goes toward the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a programme launched in 1962 to support European farmers, provide food security, and enhance the development of rural areas. The EU passes a multi-annual framework in regular terms that determines the criteria for farmers to receive CAP funds. Once such a framework is implemented, it applies until it is replaced by its successor, usually five to seven years later. One such framework, CAP 2021, was just passed by the EU Parliament in 2021. At the moment, member states are submitting plans on how they will implement the new CAP regulations in their countries. 

The CAP 2021 legislates how €387 billion in agricultural funds will be distributed to over 6 million farmers from 2023 to 2027. Crucially this might be the last legislation that can influence whether or not the goals from the 2015 Paris Agreement can be met. Unless humanity manages to limit global warming to 1.5°C warming within the next five years, every subsequent CAP framework after this one would come too late. Second, although partially planned before the launch of the Green Deal, the CAP 2021 framework is the first one that is implemented after the European Green Deal. This CAP framework has higher demands in respect to tackling climate change. In order to assess if it will meet its goals successfully, we need to dive deeper into what is funded and which sustainable practices are supported by the CAP.

Which Measures Does the CAP Take to Tackle the Climate Crisis?

The agricultural funding provided by the CAP is divided into two pillars: direct support for farmers and support for rural development. Of the total €387 billion CAP budget, €95.5 billion goes into rural development, whereas the direct support for farmers takes €291.1 billion. Which farm receives how much funding is determined by several criteria. Traditionally funding is distributed according to the size of the farm. The new CAP framework hasn’t changed this, meaning that 62% of the first pillar still goes to the biggest companies. However, the other 38% of the funds from the first pillar are distributed according to other requirements. 

Out of the direct payments, 3% go into supporting young farmers, 10% are used to fund small farms, and 25% must meet the criteria of eco-schemes. These eco-schemes enhance good environmental, climate, or animal welfare practices. They are designed to align the CAP with the Farm to Fork strategy (which is the part of the European Green Deal that deals with agriculture and food security). This strategy includes many ways to reduce CO2 emissions, such as increasing the area dedicated to natural carbon sinks including peatlands (wetland ecosystems in which the waterlogged conditions prevent organic material from full decomposition; this feature makes them the terrestrial ecosystem with the highest carbon storage capacity), reducing the use of chemical pesticides, and enhancing organic farming. Roofs of farm buildings are planned to have solar panels, and the European Commission will look into how to support more sustainable livestock production.

The European Union is more ambitious than ever before to find a way out of the climate crisis. In order to meet the self-set goals, the current Common Agricultural Policy framework emphasises sustainability more than its predecessors. Despite all these efforts, environmental NGOs remain sceptical if these measures will be sufficient.

Does the New CAP Hold What It Promises?

This is not the first time the EU has attempted to reduce the agricultural sector’s impact on the climate. However, a quick glance at the EU’s track record sinks the hope that the CAP’s measures can effectively mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. In the past, the CAP dedicated €100 billion to that cause with little or no impact, and although the EU is more serious about tackling the climate crisis, it still is questionable whether the planned measures are sufficient to keep global warming at 1.5°C.

There are regulations that intend to protect natural carbon sinks such as peatlands, but the incentives to follow these regulations are weak, and the EU member states are reluctant to implement the regulations. Moreover, these regulations are undermined by EU funding that supports farmers who drain peatland and thereby cause approximately 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector. On top of that, there are no ambitious plans to tackle the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in agriculture: industrial livestock production. 

No eco-scheme is dedicated to reducing factory farming. Considering that animal farming is responsible for 50% of the greenhouse gas emission in agriculture, the EU Commission’s commitment to look into how sustainable livestock production might be supported appears far less ambitious than the pressing situation demands. Natural carbon sinks and livestock production are more closely related than one might expect. Almost half of the EU’s land area is dedicated to agriculture. Of this area, 71% is used for meat and dairy production. If animal farming were reduced, space would be freed up to restore peatlands and grasslands. However, the biggest problem for enhancing sustainable farming practices remains the same as in the past: most of the CAP funds are distributed according to the size of the farms, regardless of the implementation of any measures for sustainable farming. 

This money mostly goes into a few megafarms and doesn’t help us reach any of the Green Deal goals but rather freezes the status quo in place. Moreover, it is not only EU policies that fail to effectively transform the farming sector. In implementing the CAP, EU member states fall short of meeting the goals of the Green Deal. Most states do not invest enough money towards climate action, nor do they protect natural carbon sinks sufficiently.

The climate crisis confronts humanity with a severe problem on a global scale. If humanity wants to continue to live as comfortably as the EU member states do at the moment, there is no way but to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The European Union strives to do exactly that by implementing the Green Deal and by adjusting policies from all areas of legislation. Within the five-year framework of the CAP, there are more ambitious measures than ever before. Nonetheless, it is doubtful if the agricultural sector in Europe can transform to reduce its CO2 emissions in time to meet the 1.5°C goal.
We encourage you to follow and learn about Friends of the Earths’ Food & Agriculture campaign here.


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