Is agriculture missing from global efforts to tackle methane emissions?

Now that COP27 is behind us, it’s time for the EU to take a good look in the mirror and acknowledge that animal farming is causing a methane problem, writes the Changing Markets Foundation’s senior campaigner Sophie Nodzenski.

Is agriculture missing from global efforts to tackle methane emissions?

The “Methane Ministerial” at COP27, a meeting dedicated to tracking progress a year on from the adoption of the Global Methane Pledge at COP26, gave the impression that global methane action is moving fast and that the global 30% reduction target will be reached by 2030. US Climate Envoy John Kerry and EU Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans led the show, boasting that 150 countries have joined the Pledge and that over a third already have a methane action plan in place.

This felt good among the lukewarm outcomes reached at COP27. In recent years, scientists have started pointing out that reducing very potent but short-lived methane emissions, in addition to carbon dioxide, should be our key strategy to reduce the rate of global warming. Cutting methane emissions would in fact prevent some climate tipping points and is essential to maintain the 1.5C limit to temperature increases against pre-industrial levels. This scientific reckoning led the EU and the US to spearhead the Global Methane Pledge at COP26, which commits countries to reduce global methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

But enthusiasm and excitement about the ‘methane momentum’ of COP27, combined with the eagerness to demonstrate progress, could lead one to overestimate the reality on the ground. Strong claims have been made by Frans Timmermans that the EU is “dealing with methane from agriculture head-on”. Let’s look at the facts.

Methane emissions in the EU’s agricultural sector are responsible for 54% of the bloc’s methane emissions, but under a business-as-usual scenario, they are expected to drop by only 3.7% by 2030. A ;ack of action in the agriculture sector means the bloc will almost certainly miss the goal to achieve a 30% cut in overall methane emissions by the end of the decade, as was warned by the EU executive in a leaked document in early October. Instead, the European Commission prioritised reducing methane emissions in the energy sector, which is only responsible for 13% of the EU’s methane emissions, with a specific fast-tracked regulation.

When quizzed about this, the European Commission (as did Timmermans at the COP27 ‘Methane ministerial’) often points to the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) dedicated budget for climate action. However, it is left to Member States to decide how they will use the fund. Only 8 Member States have allocated funds to reducing emissions from their livestock sector, and when they do, they often only target only a small portion of their respective herds, as was found in a recent policy mapping by Changing Markets Foundation. Crucially, out of the five largest livestock methane emitters (France, Germany, Spain, Poland and Italy), only Spain committed to reducing emissions from livestock – but only targeting 0.12% of its herd. In his speech, Timmermans also pointed vaguely to the EU “reviewing industrial policies”. He was referring to the Industrial Emissions Directive, which would lead to just 2-4% reduction, and which would take place after the Global Methane Pledge deadline in 2030. So no, the EU is not tackling methane emissions from the agricultural sector “head-on”. It is merely hoping for Member States to deal with the problem. Call that leadership?

There are ways the EU can rectify its chances of meeting the pledge. To start with, the EU could develop a specific integrated strategy and accompanying measures to cut methane emissions from agriculture, set a specific target for methane under the Effort Sharing Regulation, and make sure during yearly revisions that CAP Member States’ plans align with it. Crucially, it should focus on the one measure that would yield results with the most certainty: reducing the consumption of meat and dairy products and switching to more sustainable farming models. A study by the environmental consultant CE Delft found that implementing national guidance on healthier diets alone could see the EU’s methane emissions reduce by up to 19% (two-thirds of the commitment under the Pledge).

If the EU is exaggerating its methane reduction effort, how do we know that other Pledge signatories are not just doing the same? The problem is that the pledge is just a promise – and we all know that promises can be broken. The Global Methane Pledge is gathering a lot of support and attention, for the most part thanks to its dynamic leaders (the EU and the US) and the funds that were made readily available to support countries via the Global Methane Hub. But what if the wind suddenly changes? Politics is after all a fickle game. That is why alongside partner organisations, Changing Markets Foundation is calling for a global methane agreement, so that we can entrench progress made so far and enforce future actions. We need to move beyond promises to true legislative measures. Cutting methane is essential to avoiding climate breakdown, it cannot be confined to voluntary efforts.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie