Modern agriculture has become a major emitter of green house gases, in particular methane from animal husbandry, nitrogen oxide from intensive fertiliser use and C02 from mechanical farming. In the USA it accounts for as much as seven percent of green house gas emissions, in the EU the share might be around five percent, but it reaches 27 percent in Ireland.
It is therefore not surprising that the issue has been under discussion in the USA for several years and that agriculture has played a major role in the deliberations of the House of Representatives on the current US climate bill (American Climate and Energy Security Bill). Not surprisingly either that the farm lobby has secured a series of widely criticised exceptions.
By contrast, when preparing its climate package of December 2008, the EU has almost completely ignored the role of agriculture as a major emitter. Agriculture has been relevant only as a – controversial- means of curbing emissions via biofuels, which are expected to help the automobile industry better achieve its targets for lower C02 emissions.
The EU has not dared to raise the sensitive issues of subsidised diesel for agricultural use or methane emissions from cattle, sheep and pigs. It should do so, ideally in close coordination with the USA, Australia, Canada, Brazil and Argentina.
If European agriculture is exempt from emission caps it should be subject to analogous constraints that induce farmers to enhance their energy efficiency and limit green house gas emissions.
The easiest method would be extending to agriculture the excise taxes on fossil fuel. The EU does so, but at sharply reduced rates. Thus France only levies a tax of 16 cents, Germany one of 25cents/litre, compared to the generally applicable rate of around 50 cents per litre for the transport of goods and services. The EU should urgently review the prevailing system of minimum tax rates on diesel and progressively lift the rates for agricultural use to the standard level so as to make them compatible with EU climate policy. Farmers have a huge potential for raising energy efficiency; and they should stop producing biofuels when the energy input exceeds its output. Higher fuel prices may one of the means to that end.
To cope with methane emissions from animal husbandry, the EU should consider introducing a “climate charge”, which should be proportionate to the volume of methane emitted per animal. This should induce producers to convert the methane into useable gas and/or help curbing excessive meat consumption, via the slightly higher prices generated by a climate charge.
In general, Europe needs more research on the importance of agriculture for climate change and methods to help agriculture how to better face this challenge.
The EU Commission should prepare a white book on agriculture and climate change with appropriate proposals.
We need an open debate on the issue, inside the EU and with major trading partners. The result should be a specific international agreement among major agricultural producer countries for curbing green house gas emissions from agriculture.
Brussels, 06. 07.09 Eberhard Rhein
Author : Eberhard Rhein