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CAP and land

CAP and land

The EU is finally putting serious money behind sustainable farming

Could the Common Agricultural Policy be weaponised against climate change? It would be good if it could. Agriculture is the biggest single carbon emitter in the EU after the energy sector. Europe has committed itself as a bloc to net zero emissions by 2050, and the chances of achieving that without turning farmland from a carbon source into a sink are remote. 

By the same token the opportunities are big: by one estimate, so much of the biosphere’s carbon is stored in soils that if their uptake were increased by 0.4 per cent climate change could be halted. Reforming farming practices could achieve that sort of uptick, at least on a limited scale, so activists’ hopes of a bruising three-year effort to reform the CAP were always going to be high.

It’s fair to say they’ve not been met. Last week the European Commission published provisional CAP reform plans that were immediately condemned on at least three counts:

  • They allow three quarters of the EU’s farming subsidies to continue to go to big, intensive farms.
  • They give member states broad leeway to decide how much money goes to “eco-schemes”.
  • They require zero reductions in livestock husbandry, one of the most greenhouse gas-intensive endeavours ever devised by humans. 

A Green MEP, Martin Hausling, said the plan was all about “fooling the general public” that European farming was going green at last. Birdlife Europe said it was “a free-for-all dressed up as system change”.

But it could have been a lot worse. There could have been no deal at all, and after a titanic bust-up between member states and the European Parliament last month that looked a plausible outcome. Considering the sea-change that’s supposed to have tilted Europe towards progressive climate policies since the Paris agreement, member states have been shamelessly climate-blind in defending unsustainable farming in the CAP talks. MEPs have taken on the role of channeling Greta; the conscience of the bloc.

Results include:

  • a subsidy plan worth €270 billion over seven years, of which 20 per cent must go on eco-schemes in the first two years and 25 per cent in the last five; 
  • detailed definitions for those schemes, which range from carbon sequestration to pesticide reduction projects (this preliminary version will be rewritten as law), and legally binding mechanisms to fund them;
  • a separate second funding “pillar” worth €117 billion of which 35 per cent must go towards EU-defined environmental objectives.

It is a classic EU compromise. In the end the member states and MEPs were ten percentage points apart on the headline figure for green funding, and split the difference. Frans Timmermans, the climate commissioner, promised “a real shift in how we practice agriculture in Europe” – protecting peatlands, prioritising biodiversity and, crucially, opening up opportunities for “carbon farming”.

Large-scale planting for the purpose of carbon sequestration will depend on rising carbon prices to become reality. Don’t rule it out: last week the European Parliament also approved what Timmermans called a “law of laws” that makes the bloc’s overall carbon targets (a 55 per cent emissions cut compared with 1990 by 2030 and net zero by 2050) legally binding.

The idea is that this in turn will force the EU to make climate a central consideration in all legislation, not an add-on. 

All in all the European Parliament earned its keep last week. These are all messy compromises that barely hide the bad blood left when naked self-interest clashes with eco-idealism, but they’re progress. No other parliament – or Congress – has tried anything like it.  

Science and Tech

Climate of fear
Did climate change hasten the collapse of Champlain Towers South in the coastal Miami enclave of Surfside? Maybe. The Economist reports that (in addition to a 2018 engineering report saying the building was in danger), a researcher at Florida International University has used satellite data to measure subsidence under this tower and its neighbours of two millimetres a year between 1993 and 1999. There is no reason to suppose it stopped then, and the Washington Post quotes another expert who calls this collapse a canary in a coal mine – “one of the additional effects of climate change and rising sea levels; if you dig down half a foot you’re going to hit saltwater”. More than 150 people are still missing. Expect years of litigation, rising insurance premiums and falling property prices. This is how it becomes real.


Batteries matter
In a frankly spectacular told-you-so for Brexiters (that is, at Remainers’ expense), Nissan says it’ll build a battery gigafactory near its Sunderland car plant so that it can supply batteries in-house to the increasing number of EVs it plans to build there – without incurring penalties because of EU rules of origin. The Sunderland plant was the factory the Johnson government could not afford to lose if it was to sustain the argument that post-Brexit Britain could continue to be a beachhead for investors wanting to do business with Europe. And instead of pulling out, Nissan – pockets lined by HMG, to be sure – has doubled down. Even so, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) reckons 90,000 UK jobs are still at risk if the government doesn’t throw more support behind EV manufacturers, charging infrastructure and customers. “If ambitious words were currency, the UK could indeed be rich,” the SMMT’s Mike Hawes tells the Guardian. There’s something deeply resonant in that.


It’s hot out
There is a new form of involuntary climate engagement: living with intense heat. Temperatures this week have surpassed 50 degrees C in Jacobabad in Pakistan and reached a world record for June in Death Valley, California, of 53.2 degrees. And of course there is a widely-covered “heat dome” over the Pacific Northwest, breaking records from Seattle to Portland and points south. Temperatures also exceeded 40 degrees in Verkhoyansk in the Russian Arctic, which is supposed to be one of the coldest places in the world. “I am somewhat in shock looking at the raw forecast model predictions,” Professor Cliff Mass of the University of Washington told the FT. We all should be. There’s no way to sweeten the pill. On current trends these heat waves will become longer, more frequent and more deadly.  


Chinese carbon
China is about to start trading carbon emissions. It has been promising to do this for a decade, and a scheme is finally ready to go next month. It is, on the face of it, a crushing disappointment. The point of a carbon market from a climate change mitigation point of view is that by capping the number of permits-to-pollute you can set a firm limit on emissions, and by cutting that cap you can definitively, provably cut emissions. And Beijing has not set a cap. That is the pessimistic take. The optimistic one accepts the official line that for “the first time… China has pressed the responsibility of controlling greenhouse gas emissions onto enterprises… and promoted the upgrading of industrial technology through a market-pushing mechanism” – and hopes a cap will come in due course. It had better, or Beijing’s goal of net zero by 2060 will be very hard to achieve. Carbon Brief has an exhaustive Q&A

Thanks for reading.

Giles Whittell

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