EU will fail to meet methane pledge without downsizing animal agriculture, report warns
The EU will not be able to deliver on its COP26 commitment to slash methane emissions by 30% this decade unless efforts are made to scale back livestock numbers, a new report is warning.
The bloc co-launched the ‘Global Methane Pledge’ with the US federal government at COP26 in Glasgow last year, receiving support from more than 100 other nations at the time, including half of the world’s biggest methane emitters. Signatories have been steadily increasing since then.
This groundswell of support for concerted efforts to cut methane emissions was broadly welcomed. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and scientists have repeatedly outlined how reductions would make a significant contribution to efforts to ‘keep 1.5C alive’ and avert the worst physical impacts of the climate crisis.
Yet a new report, published today (14 June) by the Changing Markets Foundation and environmental consultancy CE Delft, warns that the EU itself is not implementing policy changes to deliver its own Global Methane Pledge ambitions. The bloc’s main sources of methane are fossil fuels and animal agriculture, and the report focuses on the latter, which accounts for 53% of the EU’s annual methane footprint.
According to the report, methane emissions from the EU’s livestock sector will decrease by just 3.7% by 2030, against a 2020 baseline, in a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario. “Technical measures” to reduce on-farm emissions could accelerate progress, the report notes – but they are unlikely to bring emissions down by 30% this decade. The documents forecast a 12% reduction in methane emissions from the use of feed additives for beef and dairy animals, in a best-case scenario. The worst case would be a reduction of just 1%. Additionally, a 4-7% decrease is predicted from better manure management.
The report states that while action in these areas is welcome, the simplest way to guarantee the EU’s meeting of the Global Methane Pledge commitment would be to reduce meat and dairy consumption on a per-capita basis. It forecasts that dietary changes alone – at the pace and scale needed to ultimately reduce the bloc’s livestock numbers – could bring about a 30-38% reduction in EU methane emissions by 2030.
This is not to say that Europeans would stop eating meat and/or dairy altogether. The report’s forecast is based on the average European halving their pork and beef consumption and reducing dairy consumption by one-quarter. These are the reductions already recommended by the EU’s healthy eating guidelines.
Bringing about these reductions could be achieved using a series of ‘carrots’ from policymakers, the report notes, including healthy eating campaigns, reduced VAT on fruit and vegetables and requirements for public venues to offer plant-based options. The report highlights how the EU has, historically, poured funding into campaigns promoting dairy and meat consumption, and argues the case for the redirection of these funds.
The report emphasises how a lower-dairy and lower-meat diet would not only contribute to methane reductions, but also reduce public health spending and free up land for nature restoration and other food production (given that 71% of Europe’s agricultural land is currently used to grow animal feed or to raise livestock).
We can expect this report to reignite debates on how to deliver a transition in the EU’s agriculture sector that is just and fair, with policymakers adequately supporting farmers – particularly independent farmers and farming SMEs – to adopt low-methane strategies.
The European Commission published a ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy in May 2020 in a bid to help the food value chain promote plant-based diets and sustainable practices while reducing waste. It sets aside £11bn through to 2030 but has faced criticisms for stopping short of subsidising communications campaigns promoting meat and dairy, among other topics.
Poor support for farmers seeking to move away from intensive practices has also been a recurring criticism of the EU’s approach to agriculture and sustainability.
Spotlight on waste
The new report from the Changing Markets Foundation and CE Delft adds that efforts to cut the EU’s methane emissions can also be significantly accelerated by the waste management system.
Current EU plans in the waste sector could reduce its methane emissions by 33% between 2020 and 2030, the report states. But eliminating food waste and loss would bring about further sector-specific reductions of up to 24%.
All in all, the report concludes, the EU’s overall methane footprint could be 38-45% lower in 2030 than it was in 2020 if action is taken in tandem to reduce meat and dairy consumption and improve waste management. In both spaces, action is required beyond existing commitments being delivered in full.
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Methane from organic waste and animals eventually breaks down and returns the CO2 to the air that was first captured by plants, so it is a closed carbon cycle that does not add to atmospheric CO2. The risk is that this renewable CO2 is confused with fossil CO2 that adds to the atmospheric CO2 leading to a long term increase in average world temperatures. Too much focus on CO2 from organic waste risks distracting from the dangerous fossil CO2. The world must stop burning fossil fuels of coal, oil and natural gas.