Greta Thunberg takes aim at EU’s Common Agricultural Policy

Europe Letter: Critics say proposed amendments water down climate ambitions

 Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg  during a Fridays for Future protest in  Stockholm. Photograph:  Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg during a Fridays for Future protest in Stockholm. Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

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The environmental movement of school children begun by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg is making a last bid to scupper European Union farming subsidies as the mammoth policy enters into a final phase of negotiations that may shape the landscape of the continent for the next decade.

As the bloc’s oldest and largest policy, predating the EU itself and accounting for the biggest single chunk of its budget, the Common Agricultural Policy is seen as the issue that could make or break Europe’s ambitions to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent by 2030 and reverse a biodiversity crisis that has seen bird and butterfly populations collapse over the last four decades.

“We are in a life-threatening situation,” Frans Timmermans, the commissioner in charge of the EU’s Green Deal told an International Energy Agency conference on cutting emissions on Wednesday. “If we don’t act in the next few years, our children, as we sit here in this conference, our children will be at war with each other over water and food.”

Scientists say that the CAP has been a driving force in biodiversity loss in recent decades because of the way in which it incentivised the intensification of farming. Direct payments to farmers are no longer linked to how much they produce, a nudge towards over-production once blamed for the days of cheese mountains and wine lakes. But now being tied to acreage has brought its own perversities, rewarding big landowners and entrenching inequality between large and small farmers.

The primary contribution of agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions is through intensive animal farming, the use of nitrogen fertilisers and the drying-out of peatlands, which causes them to release the carbon they store. And there are contributions to the global picture, for example the raising of livestock with soy feed that is produced through the deforestation of the Amazon.

Negotiations on the new CAP policy for 2021-2027 are entering their final phase, the conclusion of a long process that began with reforms proposed by then-agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan in 2018. Supporters have called it the greenest CAP ever, and there were clear attempts by the European Commission to weave green ambitions into it, such as by earmarking money for farmers who protect ecosystems and carbon sinks.

Activists point to a string of suggested tweaks that have the potential to wreak far-reaching results

But Green parties, environmental activists and NGOs pointed to limitations from the outset, arguing the proposal doubled down on green policies from the previous CAP that had been proven not to work, and that it would allow a free-for-all through a lack of monitoring and enforcement and by giving member states too much flexibility to regress from green targets.

Talks

The European Council and the European Parliament have now had their say on the policy and have released their positions, and talks between the three institutions will now start to find a common agreement to set the CAP’s final form.

The positions from the member states and the MEPs have caused much alarm among activists, who say that they would make the new, reformed CAP even worse than the last one. Thunberg and her fellow campaigners have renewed calls for the commission to withdraw its proposal, and torpedo the €348 billion policy outright.

“It’s undeniable that this is not in line with the Paris Agreement, it’s not in line with the 1.5 degree target,” Thunberg said this week after she met Timmermans to discuss the issue. “We really need to be realistic and say that the time for small steps in the right direction is long gone.”

Activists point to a string of suggested tweaks that, when tied up with billions of euro in funding, have the potential to wreak far-reaching results.

A proposal to re-wet peatlands would become one to “maintain” peatlands, sealing the preservation of a bad status quo. Proposals to protect non-productive landscape features would be reduced and changed to apply to a much smaller category. An idea to fund farmers to do eco-friendly schemes would be tied to a requirement that the ventures produce income, rendering the proposal largely a non-starter.

Thunberg’s Fridays for Future group has collected 71,530 signatures on a petition to EU leaders to jettison the entire reform, which they describe as a “greenwash” and say is a choice to “incentivise harmful agricultural practices, and the loss of soil fertility and biodiversity”.

The group held a virtual meeting with Timmermans on Tuesday to try to persuade him to withdraw the CAP outright if it was not in line with the Paris climate accord. Afterwards, he admitted he was facing an uphill battle.

“The commission remains committed to making the CAP fulfil the objectives of the EU Green Deal,” he tweeted. “While not easy, it’s still possible.”

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