EU has opportunity to seize global leadership on forests and climate

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65% of renewable energy produced in the EU comes from burning biomass. Three-quarters of that is wood. [Andrew Malone/ Flickr]

Former ‘climate heroes’ France, Finland, Sweden and Austria are fighting tooth and nail to weaken EU land accounting rules, also known as the Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) Regulation, writes Hannah Mowat.

Hannah Mowat is a forests and climate campaigner for FERN, an NGO that keeps track of the European Union’s involvement in forest policy.

As climate talks in Bonn wrap up, it is time to take stock. It’s no surprise that the looming prospect of the US ditching the Paris Agreement cast its shadow over proceedings – the question won’t be resolved until after the G7 meeting in Italy later this month.

We’ve been here before. Hardened veterans of climate talks will remember when former President Clinton failed to get Senate approval to ratify the climate agreement in 1997. It was up to the EU to keep the show on the road – and they did.

Now the EU’s climate leadership – questioned of late – is being put to the test once again. Their influence is particularly needed in the prickly area of emissions from land and forests. This is because, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement also applies to developing countries, where carbon dioxide from land and forests dominate their emissions profile.

How the EU deals with emissions from its own land and forests is therefore of international significance, as emphasised by the 21 NGOs spanning environmental and development groups such as Fern, Friends of the Earth, Action Aid and CAN, who sent a letter to EU legislators negotiating the carbon accounting rules that the EU will set for forests and land, otherwise known as the ‘Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry’ (LULUCF) Regulation.

The NGOs raise the alarm now because the ‘climate heroes’ France, Finland, Sweden and Austria have joined the dark side and are fighting tooth and nail to weaken EU land accounting rules.

Healthy forests for a healthy climate

LULUCF is known for being one of the most complex areas of climate policy. But it’s the make-or-break factor in global efforts to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to well below 2 degrees.

To meet this ambition, the primary task is to reduce emissions from fossil fuels as deep and fast as possible. But scientists are now saying that if we want to aim for the more ambitious 1.5-degree goal, this will not be enough.

The emerging consensus is that we will also need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Fern believes the safest way of doing this is to let existing forests grow big and healthy again. This needs to start by securing local communities’ rights to their forests and land.

In climate jargon, increasing the size and health of forests is known as ‘restoration’ and it can help maximise nature’s ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and increase ecosystems’ ability to adapt to climate change. We need to use nature’s intelligence, not count on outlandish ideas like planting new trees on an area the size of India.

EU: Setting an example for forests

LULUCF accounting rules are much more than just an obscure corner of European policy-making. EU rules bear the weighty responsibility of setting the international precedent since they will be finalised before the UN decides on accounting guidance for countries nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which will include forests and land.

In fact, in the post-Paris world, which emphasises countries determining their own actions, leadership from blocs such as the EU is more important than ever. EU rules will have profound consequences for forests in Europe but also forests across the globe. The NGOs letter to the EU urged them to take their responsibility seriously.

Previous LULUCF rules have faced serious criticism due to loopholes which allow countries to hide emissions from the land sector. For example, countries can receive credits for planting forests but do not have to deduct credits when they clear forests for farmland.  

Countries can also include expected future emissions in their “business-as-usual” baseline. They can, therefore, get away with not counting present or expected future emissions as long as they don’t go beyond their planned harvesting rates. Such rules reward countries for artificially inflating their predictions of what will happen in the future so that their emissions from land use change get counted as zero. Loopholes like this make accounting virtually useless.

We can’t afford another lost decade where we ignore forests’ impact on the climate. At a time when we need to be sequestering as much carbon dioxide as possible, EU forests are likely to start sequestering less, largely due to an increase in harvesting. And this is no small issue, since the reduction in the forest sink (the amount of carbon drawn out of the atmosphere by forests) between now and 2030 is estimated to be equivalent to the emissions of 100 million cars.

EU: Taking steps in the right direction?

EU LULUCF rules face a simple test: do they keep and increase carbon in the land and forests and avoid further emissions?

The first draft of the European Commission’s LULUCF Regulation took important steps to right the wrongs of the past. It acknowledged the fundamental flaws with allowing countries to measure against their own business-as-usual level and proposed improvements.

It was no surprise to NGOs that a Member State such as Poland was against these improvements, but the real shock is that ‘climate leaders’ such as France, Finland, Austria and Sweden are fighting to weaken the Regulation. This sends the wrong message to countries engaged in international climate negotiations in Bonn. If UN rules were to follow suit, we would effectively lose the ability to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees.

Accounting rules shouldn’t be political – they should be boring, technical, and effective. The EU has a unique opportunity to set a positive international precedent for how to increase removals of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They need to set strong long-term targets for using the land sector to remove emissions from the atmosphere.

The US’s enduring commitment to the Paris Agreement is of critical importance. But so too, is the EU’s decisions over its emissions from its land and forests.