Environmental sustainability in the CAP
The common agricultural policy (CAP) has three clear environmental goals, each of which are echoed in the European Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategy:
- tackling climate change;
- protecting natural resources;
- enhancing biodiversity.
Each of these goals are supported by the CAP’s promotion of organic farming and the responsible management of inputs like pesticides and fertilisers.
The CAP aims to reach its environmental goals in a way that is socially and economically sustainable for farmers, rural communities, and the EU as a whole.
Environmental measures in the CAP
Measures that encourage green farming and enforce environmental rules form a central part of the CAP:
- cross-compliance standards link financial support to EU rules on the environment, as well as human, plant and animal health;
- green direct payments put in place mandatory actions (maintaining permanent grassland, crop diversity and ecological focus areas), each geared towards protecting the environment and tackling climate change;
- rural development policy supports investments and farming activities that contribute to climate action and the sustainable management of natural resources.
The CAP 2023-27 entered into force on 1 January 2023. It takes further steps towards achieving a green and sustainable system of agriculture in the EU. It includes:
- a more simplified, flexible, and targeted approach;
- strengthened environmental conditions and standards to be met by farmers;
- an expanded set of voluntary environmental actions available to farmers, through eco-schemes and rural development policy.
Tackling climate change
The CAP is a key tool in unlocking agriculture’s potential to fight climate change. An estimated total of €104bn (or 25%) of CAP funding for the 2014-20 period went towards actions relevant for the climate, such as:
- reducing greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging improved livestock management and breeding, as well as investing in manure storage and treatment;
- increasing carbon sequestration and storage through measures and investments in areas such as soil protection and forest restoration;
- helping farmers adapt to the challenges brought by climate change through investments and advice on new methods and technology.
Through these measures, agricultural emissions declined by 21% between 1990 and 2017, without reducing production levels. The CAP 2023-27 includes strengthened support for climate change mitigation, contributing to the Green Deal’s climate action goal of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions across the EU by 2050.
Protecting natural resources
In order to protect the natural resources essential to agriculture, the CAP:
- safeguards both the quantity and quality of water used in agriculture by establishing buffer strips along watercourses, supporting more efficient irrigation systems, and enhancing the enforcement of rules in nitrate vulnerable zones;
- sets mandatory standards for minimum soil cover and encourages further practices that limit soil erosion and maintain organic matter;
- protects air quality by encouraging reductions in ammonia emissions, placing restrictions on the burning of residues and preventing the spraying of pesticides in windy conditions.
Through rural development policy, the CAP also contributes to the EU’s forest strategy by supporting the protection, establishment, restoration, and sustainable management of forests across Europe.
By protecting the natural resources essential to agriculture and forestry, the CAP contributes to the Green Deal’s goal of eliminating pollution across the EU.
In order to safeguard the farmland ecosystem, the CAP links with EU wildlife directives and works towards the goals of the Commission’s updated biodiversity strategy, which forms part of the Green Deal.
The CAP sets out to protect biodiversity in a number of ways:
- cross-compliance rules cover both the birds and habitats directive, as well as measures aimed at the retention of landscape features and reductions in pesticide use;
- the establishment of ecological focus areas through green direct payments has resulted in the retention of landscape features and more land lying fallow, benefiting biodiversity by facilitating pollination and protecting habitats;
- rural development policy encourages actions that conserve and enhance biodiversity, such as providing funds for the establishment and maintenance of landscape features and "wildlife corridors", and supporting high nature value farming systems and nature management plans that nurture wildlife-friendly areas.
JRC report on classification and quantification of landscape features
JRC report on EU countries choices on landscape features
Encouraging low-input agriculture
Pesticides, fertilisers, and antibiotics are widely used throughout the EU to help agriculture produce food and other essential materials for society. However, overuse and improper use can have a negative impact on the environment, as well as on the health of plants, animals and humans.
The CAP aims to encourage a reduced and responsible use of these inputs by:
- promoting organic farming;
- helping farmers to use pesticides and fertilisers responsibly and apply environmentally-friendly management techniques, alternative methods, and new technologies;
- reducing the need for antibiotics through investments and advice that benefits animal health and welfare.
Assessing environmental measures
The European Commission constantly assesses the effectiveness of the CAP in reaching its environmental targets:
- a wide array of environmental data is included in the comprehensive set of indicators collected under the common monitoring and evaluation framework (CMEF);
- a complementary set of 28 agri-environmental indicators further tracks the integration of environmental concerns into the CAP;
- as part of the CMEF, evaluations and external studies on environmental sustainability are carried out by independent experts on behalf of the Commission.
The data collected by the Commission provides comprehensive information on:
- the state of the rural environment in the EU and developments over time;
- the impact of farming on climate, natural resources, and biodiversity;
- the implementation of the CAP’s environmental measures across the EU;
- the success of environmental measures in reaching their targets and their wider impact beyond their stated objectives.
The assessment of the CAP’s environmental measures takes into account the complex links between policy measures, changes in farming practices and environmental improvements, as well as numerous other intervening factors, such as weather events, the impact of market trends, and differences in environmental conditions across EU countries and regions.
The role of knowledge and innovation
Knowledge, research and innovation drive environmentally sustainable agriculture in the EU:
- research and innovation brings forward new environmentally-friendly techniques and technologies for agriculture;
- the farm advisory system keeps farmers informed about how new research, methods and technologies can be utilised to ensure environmentally-friendly farming;
- the agricultural European innovation partnership (EIP-AGRI) works to foster innovative ideas that propel sustainable farming and forestry in the EU.
- the iMAP project aims to provide scientific evidence on impacts of farming practices on the environment and the climate to support the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of these objectives in the CAP Strategic Plans.