European Union Agricultural Policy and Practice: The New Challenge of Climate Change


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Keywords: Common Agricultural Policy, climate change, direct payments, cross-compliance, rural development, biofuels, sustainability criteria

Abstract: Climate change has been identified as a new challenge for EU agricultural policy which must be addressed as a matter of priority. The importance of climate-friendly agricultural practices in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions already receives some recognition under the current legislative framework; and the proposed regulations for the period 2014-2020, issued in October 2011, indicate that this importance will be considerably enhanced. Such practices will be examined with specific reference to: cross-compliance obligations attached to direct payments to farmers (under Pillar I of the CAP); more targeted rural development measures (under Pillar II of the CAP); and sustainability criteria in respect of feedstock for biofuels and bioliquids, as laid down by the Renewable Energy Directive. In addition, the article will consider two broader issues which each present an obstacle to any regulation in this area. The first issue is the inherent difficulty in creating a regime that is sensitive to the complexities and uncertainties which pervade the climate change debate, yet, at the same time, can be effective in practice. A second issue is the further inherent difficulty of finding in this context the appropriate balance between measures implemented under respectively Pillar I and Pillar II of the CAP, both Pillars having their apparent strengths and weaknesses.


In 2006 the Food and Agriculture Organization issued its report, Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, in which it was stated that the livestock sector is 'responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent' (a higher proportion even than transport).' And, although that percentage has been fiercely contested,2 there can now be little doubt that the capacity of agriculture to impact adversely upon climate change has moved to centre stage in terms of European Union (EU) agricultural policy and practice. This development would seem fully consistent with the express incorporation of combating climate change as an objective of EU environmental policy following the Treaty of Lisbon.3 Indeed, major claims have already been made for agriculture in meeting this objective. Thus, it is considered to have 'contributed more than other sectors to curbing green house gas emissions';4 and, according to European Commission findings, net carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from agricultural soils fell by 20.8 per cent over the period 1990-2007.5 Similarly, over the period 1990-2004 the percentage of EU greenhouse gas emissions attributable to agriculture fell from 11 to 9 per cent.6 That said, croplands continue to be the source of significant concern: according to the same European Commission findings, in 2007 they still generated 70 million tonnes CO2, of which only 13 million tonnes were offset by grasslands operating as net sinks.7 Further, a considerable proportion of the reduction in emissions achieved during 1990-2007 could be attributed to compulsory set-aside of arable land; yet, as from 2008, the demands of food security (and also biofuel production) saw the abolition of any compulsion to engage in this form of land management.8

A certain poignancy is added by the fact that, notwithstanding that agriculture may assist the EU in achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, it remains itself an industry peculiarly vulnerable to the effects of climate change (including not just rises in temperature, but also increased competition for water and the introduction of new pests and diseases).9 On the other hand, the potential consequences for different regions within the EU would appear far from uniform. For example, Southern Mediterranean Member States are likely to suffer major risks by reason of lower precipitation, while being offered no significant opportunities in terms of crop development; but by contrast, Ireland and Scotland may benefit from an increase in the Northern range over which major commodity crops can be grown.

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