European countries are still undecided on how to handle the thorny issue of deforestation under a new international climate change agreement, with national interests coming into play as EU ministers gear up for a series of meetings next week.

Future arrangements for tackling greenhouse gas emissions from forests are set to take on a dual approach in the Kyoto Protocol's successor, which aims to ensure that forests are better accounted for this time around.

Under current plans, forests in developed countries will be subject to rules on land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF), while developing countries will seek to halt deforestation through a programme to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD).

But correcting the failures of Kyoto by putting in place a system in developed countries where forests are dealt with rigorously has turned out to be a daunting task.

A senior diplomat from one of the large EU member states pointed to differences between countries like Russia and Canada, which have extensive forested areas and are planning large cuts, and other countries which have smaller forest sectors.

The diplomat said that two models were emerging as regards accounting for forests in developed countries.

First, "we take the whole stock of forests and look at how much carbon dioxide they absorb," he said. In this case, the result would always be positive as forests will absorb CO2 even after large cuts have been made, he explained.

"Or you can look at the evolution of the existing stock. And so, even if you have a very large forest, if it is being reduced, the result is negative," the diplomat said.

The EU as a bloc does not have a big stake in the debate because forest-related activities account for very few emissions in Europe.

But three member states with large forests - Sweden, Finland and Austria - would prefer to look at the stock, the diplomat said, while the objective of other member states would be to "have a European position that takes into account only the difference between deforestation and reforestation".

But the diplomat pointed out that the UN-level discussions are leaning towards stricter accounting.

"This is because the United States is moving towards a strict approach and because countries with large tropical forests are all pushing for it too as they have a lot to gain from a system which takes into account the forests they have at home," he said.

The position floated by Sweden, Finland and Austria would allow countries to continue to cut down forests without buying credits if they offset the deforestation with new plantations. However, this does not mean that there are no emissions, as the new forests would not absorb as much CO2 as cutting down old growth releases, critics say. 

NGOs hope that the EU will "green up" its current position at next week's (21 October) meeting of environment ministers. But the diplomat said that the conclusions, which will feed into the European summit on 29-30 October that is to finalise the EU's position for Copenhagen, are likely to refer to both options.

"We could in the EU have a really green position on land use and forestry, but we've actually got one of the worst positions," said John Lanchbery of the UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), likening the current EU approach to that of Russia and Canada.

"Many of the countries would like to change that and have a straightforward system where you treat the forest sector as you would treat electricity generation, for example," Lanchbery stated.

Tropical deforestation talks sidetracked

In terms of emissions reductions, though, halting tropical deforestation will be crucial as it is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions. But consensus has been slow to emerge with so many national interests involved.

The European Commission's lead climate negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger regretted that surprisingly little progress had been made in this area after the latest round of international talks ended in Bangkok last week (9 October) (EurActiv 13/10/09), despite experts having worked on it since 2006. The real questions at the heart of the debate – which will cover forests as well as financing – will only be discussed in Barcelona next month, he said.

Within the EU, some member states are trying to ensure that their industry gets the best possible deal in the debate over which activities will receive funding, sources told EurActiv. The billions of dollars on offer are attractive to the logging industry, which is hoping to access the REDD funding system as a subsidy for reducing its climate impact.

A number of countries, including France and Spain, appear to be actively lobbying for the concept of "sustainable forest management" to guide the allocation of funding. This differs from "sustainable management of forests" originally used in the Bali Declaration that introduced the REDD mechanism in 2007.

The significance lies in the definition of the concepts, as 'sustainable forest management' refers to sustainable forestry or logging while the original wording encompasses a wider range of activities, including conservation and local community schemes.

Environmentalists are strongly against any provisions diverting money away from local communities and meaningful emissions cuts.

"For us, it is very important that the future REDD funds will be used to effectively stop deforestation and benefit the local communities, And that these funds will not be used to subsidise the forestry and agro business activities," commented Sébastien Risso, EU forest policy director at Greenpeace.