Photo: © Blacklionder –

Scrapping CAP direct payments would reduce nitrogen emissions

Direct payments to farmers are a driver for increased fertiliser use and higher animal intensity, and consequently increased environmental impact.

EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is one of the most prominent policy areas in the EU, taking up about 40 per cent of the common budget and impacting about half of the EU area. The environmental footprint of CAP has therefore been an object of public scrutiny for quite some time.

In two recently published papers we have analysed possible impacts of CAP direct payments on several agri-environmental indicators, among them ammonia emissions, and of two important greenhouse gases, nitrous oxide and methane. For ammonia, agriculture is the single most important source. While for greenhouse gas emissions, other emissions sources, especially energy and traffic, are much more important, but nevertheless all sectors must contribute to mitigating climate change.

We found that there is reliable positive correlation between ammonia emissions per hectare of agricultural land and level of direct payments per hectare: the higher the payments, the bigger the emissions (figure 1). The same can be observed for combined emissions of nitrous oxide and methane expressed in carbon dioxide equivalents per hectare: higher direct payments per hectare are reliably correlated to higher emissions (figure 2).

Figure 1. How levels of direct payments  in member states correlate with ammonia emissions.

Figure 2. how levels of direct payments in member states correlate with NO2 and CH4 emissions.

The correlation as such does not prove causal relation: the common cause of both higher emissions and bigger payments is partly found in the history of CAP direct payments. They were introduced to replace the market support, and were originally tied to production; hence countries with intensive agriculture tend to have higher payments per hectare.

However, there is also good reason to believe that direct payments are also partly driving emissions, by contributing to greater reliance on procured inputs like fertiliser and fodder. Indeed, bigger subsidies are connected to greater use of mineral nitrogen (figure 3).  Bigger subsidies are also connected to higher numbers of farm animals, with very high densities that imply imports of fodder that exist only at the “upper end” of the direct payments (figure 4).

Figure 3. How levels of direct payments in member states correlate with mineral nitrogen usage.

Figure 4. How levels of direct payments in member states correlate with animal densitities.

Since methane emissions are largely driven by animal husbandry, and emissions of ammonia and nitrous oxide by animal husbandry and mineral fertiliser use, it is thus reasonable to conclude that these emissions are not only historically connected to higher subsidies, but also partly result from them. Hence, getting rid of CAP direct payments can be seen as a cost-efficient way to reduce emissions of ammonia and two important agricultural greenhouse gasses.

Aleksei Lotman, Estonian Fund for Nature

and Kuno Kasak, Univeristy of Tartu


Lotman, Aleksei & Kasak, Kuno. 2017a. Euroopa Liidu ühine põllumajanduspoliitika – kas ka päriselt roheline? Akadeemia nr 3. (In Estonian with English summary – EU Common Agricultural Policy of European Union – green or greenwashed?)

Lotman, Aleksei & Kasak, Kuno. 2017b. EU Common Agricultural Policy direct payments, Nitrogen balance and eutrophication of the Baltic Sea.


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