Climate change and agriculture in the EU
Agriculture has a positive and important role to play in climate change mitigation: the crops, hedgerows, and trees found on farmland sequester carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, while properly managed soils provide carbon storage.
However, agriculture also accounts for around 10% (438 994 MtCO2e, 2017) of total greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, coming behind the energy, transport, residential, and commercial sectors. Two types of greenhouse gas in particular are associated with agricultural practices:
- methane (CH4) – from livestock digestion processes, manure management, and rice cultivation;
- nitrous oxide (N2O) – from agricultural soils with organic and mineral nitrogen fertilisation, and manure management.
In the EU, the agricultural sector reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 19% between 1990 and 2017. Emissions of methane due to enteric fermentation from the digestive system of cattle fell by 21% over the same period.
Through the common agricultural policy (CAP), the European Commission aims to ensure that agriculture makes a strong contribution to the EU’s climate policies.
As part of the European Green Deal, the Farm to Fork strategy outlines the framework for a transition towards a sustainable food system, in which farmers can continue to meet society’s demands for food while also protecting the climate. The CAP is the key tool to support farmers in this transition.
Current CAP actions
The CAP promotes sustainable agricultural systems in the EU, enabling farmers to:
- provide safe, healthy, and sustainably-produced food for society;
- earn a stable and fair income, taking into account the full range of public goods they provide;
- protect natural resources, enhance biodiversity, and contribute to the fight against climate change.
Through a number of rules and measures, the CAP provides support for climate action in agriculture and forestry.
Under cross-compliance rules, all beneficiaries of the CAP have their payments linked with a set of statutory management requirements (SMRs) and good agricultural and environmental conditions (GAECs). Cross-compliance rules safeguard natural resources under increasing pressure from climate change, while specific rules to protect soil – such as the requirement for minimum soil cover under GAEC 4 – contribute to carbon storage.
Green direct payments
Under current CAP rules, farmers receive green direct payments when they maintain permanent grassland, undertake crop diversification, and dedicate 5% of arable land to ecological focus areas (EFAs).
The requirement for permanent grassland can help to preserve organic carbon in soil, while some of the options for EFAs – such as field margins, agro-forestry, and green cover – can also contribute to carbon sequestration.
One of the six priority areas of rural development (the so-called 'second pillar' of the CAP) is to “promote resource efficiency and support the shift towards a low-carbon and climate resilient economy in the agriculture, food and forestry sectors”. In their rural development programmes, EU countries can contribute to this priority area through measures that:
- facilitate the supply and use of renewable sources of energy;
- reduce greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions from agriculture;
- foster carbon conservation and sequestration in agriculture and forestry.
EU countries can direct a number of measures towards climate action and adaptation, such as:
- agri-environment-climate measures (AECMs), under which farmers can commit to climate friendly practices and management systems, such as agro-ecology or agro-forestry;
- investments in physical assets can be directed towards manure storage facilities that reduce ammonia emissions;
- measures to support forestry development and management enhance the important role of forests in carbon sequestration;
- a risk management measure can be used to back mutual funds for adverse climatic events;
- measures for cooperation, knowledge transfer and advisory services foster knowledge and innovation on climate-relevant farming practices.
The European network for rural development facilitates knowledge-sharing and cooperation on the bio-economy and climate action in rural areas.
New CAP: 2023-27
Due to start in 2023, the new CAP will put agriculture closer in line with the climate ambitions of the European Green Deal.
CAP specific objectives
Based on the Commission’s proposals, one of the nine specific objectives of the new CAP will focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as developing agriculture’s use and provision of sustainable energy.
CAP strategic plans
In their CAP strategic plans, EU countries can deliver on EU climate goals by targeting national needs and potential. Countries will have more flexibility to design interventions around local and regional requirements for climate change adaptation and capitalise on the possibilities for emissions reductions in their agriculture sectors.
New green architecture
The new CAP will include a new green architecture, which will enhance opportunities for climate-friendly farming. For example, enhanced conditionality will include existing requirements, such as the protection of permanent grassland, but in a strengthened and streamlined form. It will also include requirements such as the protection of peatland and wetland. Moreover, a significant portion of the CAP’s budget will be devoted to eco-schemes, which can support voluntary practices by farmers that contribute to climate change mitigation and reduced emissions. The Commission published an indicative list of eco-schemes in January 2021, including several practices that are beneficial for the climate. In addition, support for rural development will continue to fund land management payments, investments, knowledge-building, innovation and co-operation relevant to climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Through the common monitoring and evaluation framework, the Commission collects a variety of data indicators relating to agriculture and climate change. The Commission’s agri-food data portal includes dashboards displaying the most relevant indicators for environment and climate action, as well as climate change and air quality.
The CMEF also facilitates a range of evaluations and external studies to measure the performance of the CAP. In June 2021, the Commission published an independent evaluation assessing the CAP's impact on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
The new CAP will include a reinforced performance monitoring and evaluation framework, which will facilitate greater accountability and the transition to a performance-based delivery model.
Knowledge, research, and innovation
By funding research and innovation, the Commission supports the development of modern systems of agriculture and forestry that can contribute to climate action while remaining productive and profitable. For example, the Horizon Europe mission on soil health will seek to harness the potential of soil to mitigate the effects of climate change.
The farm advisory system shares new knowledge and best practices, helping farmers to implement appropriate solutions for their specific situations.
The agricultural European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI) brings together focus groups, operational groups, projects, publications and events to advance innovation in agriculture and climate change. Areas of focus include carbon storage in arable farming, agroforestry, reducing emissions in cattle farming and using renewable energy on the farm.
Cross compliance is governed by rules on the financing, management and monitoring of the common agricultural policy – EU Regulation 1306/2013, EU Implementing Regulation 809/2014, EU Delegated Regulation 640/2014.
EU support for rural development comes from the European agricultural fund for rural development (EAFRD) – EU Regulation 1305/2013