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FixOurFood presentation at the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development – 28th November 2023

By Michelle Cain, FixOurFood Researcher, Cranfield University

Image of European Parliament 
Photo by Guillaume Périgois on Unsplash

Last month, I visited the European Parliament in Brussels for the first time. It was an inspiring place, with large banners decorating the exterior to remind us that this is a place of “Democracy in action” and that “Climate neutrality by 2050 is now a binding obligation” for the EU (sadly, there was no footnote with a definition of climate neutrality). Inside it is no less impressive, with modern art in the atria, and a whole zone set up for TV interviews taking place as part of daily life.

I was there to speak at a workshop on “Reassessment of methane emissions: focus on biogenic methane emissions” on 28 th November 2023, which was organised for the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development. With the aforementioned EU commitment to climate neutrality, understanding the role of methane emissions and their reduction is a key topic for the agricultural sector. Unlike many sectors, agriculture isn’t dominated by carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. Its greenhouse gas emissions are largely composed of methane (from ruminant livestock like cattle and sheep, and manures) and nitrous oxide (from both artificial fertiliser and manures).

Each greenhouse gas has a different strength of warming effect, and a different lifespan in the atmosphere. Both methane and nitrous oxide have a stronger warming effect, gram-for-gram, than carbon dioxide. However, there is much less of them in the atmosphere than CO2. Another key difference is that methane lasts about a decade in the atmosphere, compared to over a century for nitrous oxide, and even longer than that for CO2.

The varying lifetimes makes the comparison between different gases vary depending on the time span you are considering. This is why the metrics used to compare the impact of different greenhouse gases is an important issue for agriculture. Looking in the near-term will give you a different perspective to the long-term when a large fraction of your emissions are methane, like for agriculture.

The first speaker at the workshop, Ricardo Fernandez from the European Environment Agency, presented an overview of methane emission trends in Europe. Over half of all EU methane emissions are from agriculture, and while they declined since 1990, they have been stable since 2010. This is a contrast to global methane emissions which are on the rise, and was a key point picked up on by the MEPs (Members of European Parliament) during the session. To my mind, this is a fundamental conundrum we must accept when it comes to climate action. Emissions come from every part of our society, hence there is no single solution. Every sector, every country, is only one slice of the pie. While Europe is only responsible for 4% of the total global methane emissions, this is not a reason to avoid reducing them. If everyone said that, then no action would ever be taken (perhaps this has
been the case for too long already!).

My presentation looked at how much impact cutting methane emissions could have on global warming levels. The majority of the warming today (relative to pre-industrial times) caused by EU agricultural emissions is from methane, with only half as much warming coming from nitrous oxide. However, because methane emissions have fallen in recent years, the level of warming from methane has already peaked and is declining. This comes about because methane is short lived, so its impact on temperature is short lived. This isn’t the case for nitrous oxide, so while nitrous oxide emissions have also fallen, the level of warming from this gas has risen, as it accumulates in the atmosphere.

This difference between the impact of cutting long lived and short-lived gases is why metrics used to compare the different gases matter. If we want to work out how much to cut gases by to limit global warming to 1.5C or any other temperature, then we need to be able to work out how much those emissions or cuts affect the temperature. One simple solution for this is to have separate targets for long lived and short-lived gases.

Looking at how much impact cutting methane emissions would have – one study showed that cutting it by 30% between 2020 and 2030 followed by slower declines after that caused temperatures to go down by 0.1C between 2020 and 2050. Cutting methane at a slower rate of 3% per decade led to methane’s contribution to global warming remaining constant over time.

So, if the EU decided what size agricultural methane’s slice of the global warming pie should be, then they could adjust methane emissions to match this. While the correct size of pie for each country and sector is a political decision, hopefully science can help advise how the emissions can match those decisions.

One thing that is certain is that we need methane emissions globally to decrease in order to achieve the Paris Agreement (increasing methane emissions are currently driving temperatures up).

Following my presentation, Ignacio Perez Dominguez of the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission spoke about how metrics affect how you analyse different policies for the agri-food sector, and result in different outcomes. Metrics can be used well to design effective mitigation strategies to match with climate aims, and they should not undermine any efforts at emissions reductions.

Gail Marion, head of environmental sustainability at DG Agri, then gave a speech, noting that while methane emissions have stabilised since 2010, the food produced has increased, so there is an improvement in methane emissions intensity. She also noted that the Common Agricultural Policy does support many methane reduction strategies and technologies, like manure management and precision farming. A key point she made was that place-based solutions are absolutely key, as no one size fits all for finding solutions to making agriculture more sustainable. This chimes with the approach FixOurFood takes to finding ways forward to transformation in the Yorkshire Food System.

What was made quite clear from the MEP’s interventions, was that they are juggling many policy needs, such as the rural economy, cultural issues and food security, as well as emissions reductions. This balance of priorities is why it is so informative and insight-giving to take part in events such as this one. It was far from the usual focussed discussion of a specific topic that I am used to, and was a valuable experience in how politicians work and seem to bring together all issues at once.

One further thing that struck me – while this was a rare opportunity for me to share my understanding with MEPs, and thus I spent days preparing my slides and practicing to keep
to time, this was just an everyday occurrence for the MEPs themselves. I am grateful to have has a glimpse into their day jobs!

AGRI – Workshop on Reassessment of methane emissions

AGRI – Workshop on Reassessment of methane emissions

Additional resources

Please find a link to an official blog post about the event: Workshop on Reassessment of methane emissions: focus on biogenic methane emissions

A link to the agenda can be found here: Agri workshop reassessment of methane emissions – focus on biogenic methane emissions – 28th November 2023

Please find a recording of the event here: Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development – 28th November 2023