Tuesday’s decision by the European Commission not to include mandatory reductions in non-CO2 emissions for agriculture has caused a lot of heat, but not much light.

The announcement of the rowback from the stated target of earlier drafts – a 30% reduction by 2040 compared to 2015, came in tandem with Ursula von der Leyen’s declaration that the Commission is shelving the Sustainable Use Regulation (SUR) on pesticide usage.

These changes are being hailed as a victory for protesting farmers, but the political dynamic is worth closer inspection.

The first thing to remember is that we are hurtling towards the European Parliament elections. Von der Leyen may be the president of the Commission, but she is also a politician. As a leading member of the EPP, the elections are weighing on her mind. They are weighing on everyone’s mind.

The withdrawal of the SUR is as much about political pragmatism as anything else. The simple reality is that the SUR was rejected by the Parliament, and rejected in a way that makes adjusting it to change the maths extremely difficult. The proposal was a compromise package that was opposed by Green and Left MEPs as not going far enough, and also opposed by the other end of the political spectrum, the right, as going too far. This “coalition of the unlikely” as Irish Commissioner Mairead McGuinness called them, is hard to negotiate with.

Water the proposals down, and you might gain support from the right, but you’ll lose more from the left and centre. Beef them up, and the opposite effect still sees the SUR probably doomed to fail. This is why von der Leyen described it as a “symbol of polarisation”.

Shift in timetable

With the elections now four months away, even if the political will were there to shove it back on to the agenda, there isn’t enough time to do so. So the Commission has taken the practical step of kicking the can on to the next Commission and the next Parliament. The issue is not off the table, it’s just the timetable that has shifted.

Does the removal of methane and other non-CO2 gas emissions reductions have more impact on farmers? Perhaps, but again, there is a health warning. Ireland, and every other EU country, has signed up to mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions for 2030 and 2050. The 2030 target has been broken down into the six sectoral targets. Nothing that was said or done this week changes the 25% target for agriculture under our national climate action plan.

And unless the EU tears up it’s own legally binding climate targets for 2050, the sectoral targets will only get more challenging. So this week’s Commission backtrack is a concession, but it’s also clever politics that won’t change anything at farm gate level.