MHA | EU carbon removals initiative and UK agricultural sustainability

EU carbon removals initiative and UK agricultural sustainability

Mark Lumsdon-Taylor · Posted on: March 22nd 2024 · read

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Good for farming; good for the planet.

As governments are increasingly driven to address the mounting challenges relating to climate change and environmental sustainability, the volume and frequency of related legislative and advisory announcements appear to be growing. This month there were two important announcements, one from the Council of the EU, the other from the UK government. Both will have a significant impact on farming.

On 20th February, the Council of the EU announced that both the Council and the European Parliament had reached provisional political agreement on a regulation to establish the first EU-level certification framework for carbon removals.

The Council observed: 

‘This voluntary framework is intended to facilitate and speed up the deployment of high-quality carbon removal and soil emission reduction activities in the EU.’

It’s a pity the framework is intended to be voluntary, at least at the outset, but as history tells us, if the framework is robust and credible it will deliver benefits that organisations will ignore at their peril. Time will tell.

The new initiative dovetails with many others within the EU Fit for 55 imperative, although that has the very specific goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030.

The agreement extends the scope of the regulation to soil emission reductions and maintains an open definition of carbon removals, aligned to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) definition.

It also differentiates between the following types of carbon removal and emission-reduction activity and four related types of units:

  1. Permanent carbon removal: storing atmospheric or biogenic carbon for several centuries
  2. Temporary carbon storage in long-lasting products: such as wood-based construction, of a duration of at least 35 years and that can be monitored on-site during the entire monitoring period.
  3. Temporary carbon storage from carbon farming: restoring forests and soil, wetland management and seagrass meadows are examples.
  4. Soil emission reduction: including carbon and nitrous oxide reductions from soil management and, as long as such activities result, an improvement in the soil carbon balance, wetland management, no tilling and cover crop practices combined with reduced use of fertilizers.

The last two must last at least 5 years to be certified and must not lead to land being acquired for speculative purposes negatively affecting rural communities.

Adoption of a circular economy (CE) model will help farmers and land-owners to align with the new framework, but it’s adoption in Europe is low, with the majority of rural enterprises relying on the linear model of producing waste and consuming non-renewable resources – consumption and disposal.

This has to change, and the evidence exists to support the need for that change.

On average, agriculture is responsible for 77% of the total nitrogen load in the environment (CEE 2020). In addition, approximately 20% of global CO2 emissions are attributed to agricultural production. It is reported that a 1% increase in agricultural production equates to an 18-35% increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the change necessary is considerable, particularly in countries with large numbers of smaller farming enterprises where the cost-benefit in financial terms can be punitive. It is not the first time we have heard the cry ‘It’s hard to be green when you’re in the red.’

The new rules will apply specifically to activities taking place in the EU. However, when reviewing the new regulation, the Commission is likely to consider the possibility of allowing geological carbon storage in neighbouring third countries – of which the UK is now one – provided those countries align with EU environmental and safety standards.

Which brings me to the second news item to catch my attention this week, one that is specifically aimed at UK farmers.

On 20th February, UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, announced a package of measures to help UK farmers and to tackle the growing issue of food sustainability.

Whilst the catalyst for the announcement is likely to have been driven by farming protest groups claiming more needs to be done to protect UK farmers from competition posed by cheaper imports, it is also almost certainly driven by unrest amongst farmers who are struggling with rising costs, low supermarket pricing and a new post-Brexit farm payments scheme that many say has focused on environmental policy over food productivity.

This latter point is a difficult circle to square as increasingly, EU legislation (in particular) focuses on environmental management and climate change impacts. The EU is still a major influence on the UK’s food sustainability so the UK focus on increasing alignment with EU environmental and safety standards, as well as an increasing focus on environmental and food security issues, is only likely to grow in the coming months and years.

Although not a full member of the EU, Ukraine was preparing, in 2021, to formally apply for EU membership in 2024. On 13th September 2023, during her State of the European Union address, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen stated that the future of Ukraine was ‘in our union.’ Few of us are not aware of the impact of the war in Ukraine on global, and UK, food sustainability and food pricing. What happens in the EU is not something the UK can afford to ignore.

The package of measures announced at the National Farmers Union annual conference in Birmingham, include £220 million to be invested in new food-productivity schemes, farm technology and automation to ‘reduce reliance on overseas workers’ during the next financial year.

Plans to cut bureaucracy related to permitted development rights were also announced, enabling UK farmers to more-easily diversify and develop new businesses such as farm shops, commercial space and sporting venues.

An important step in the food security campaign is also the announcement that, following the establishment of practices to ensure reasonable contracts for the dairy sector, similar rules will apply for the pig and egg sectors.

Whilst the EU and UK announcements from 20th February may appear unrelated at first glance, they are linked.

UK farmers may be facing the fall-out from supermarket price wars, as well as serious government underfunding over many years, but they are also a part of the system that is contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, environmental unsustainability and climate change.

In that respect, every agricultural enterprise, everywhere across the globe is involved in both the problem as well as the solution. That means that whether an enterprise is farming in the EU or in the UK, it must be enabled to achieve the balance between fair pricing, fair margin and environmental investment for public good. Unless that balance is achieved, everyone loses.

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For further detail regarding the EU carbon removals certification framework please visit the European Council, Council of the European Union website at: https://www.consilium.europa.e...

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