Will the European Parliament take the high road on climate and forests?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

MEPs have recognised that "carbon sinks" such as forest are needed to meet the Paris climate objective. However, they risk ignoring emissions related to bioenergy, FERN warns. [CSeeby/Flickr]

Ahead of a European Parliament vote on land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF), Hannah Aho explains how MEPs have both strengthened and weakened draft forest rules she says are essential in the fight against climate change.

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

After one of the hottest summers in history EU policy makers are returning to their desks. One important but little covered issue sitting in their in-tray is the upcoming European Parliament vote on regulating the climate impact of land and forests (land use, land use change and forests, LULUCF). It remains to be seen whether the summer’s heat waves and floods will motivate them to vote for climate policy ambitious enough to safeguard human well-being.

We are running out of chances to keep global warming in check and forests and land are a big part of our remaining hope. Past changes in land use and land cover are estimated to have accounted for 40% of all warming between years 1850-2010. This is huge.

Standing forests have never been more important in the fight against climate change. Scientists recognise that to achieve the Paris Agreement and limit warming to 1.5 degrees, we need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The easiest, cheapest and only proven way of doing this is to protect and restore the forests and land that naturally cool the climate.

So what is the EU doing? The Commission proposed a LULUCF target of zero – meaning that while member states wouldn’t be required to increase the amount of emissions their forests remove, they also couldn’t substantially decrease the amount their forests take up. The proposal was based on the assumption that as long as emissions go down in the other sectors (the Emission Trading Scheme and Effort Sharing Decision) the EU’s net emissions would go down.

Whilst not ambitious in terms of what forests could achieve, this Commission proposal should show whether efforts are reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not just moving emissions around on an accounting sheet. The proposal would also get rid of forest accounting loopholes which had allowed countries to hide increased emissions equivalent to 127 million more cars on the road.

But the Commission proposal is not the version the Parliament will be voting on next week. The Parliament Environmental Committee (ENVI) has changed the Commission’s proposal both positively and negatively.

On the plus side, it recognises that negative emissions are needed and that the LULUCF sector will need to do more to help achieve the Paris Agreement objective; it favours production of long lasting wood products; and it makes accounting for managed wetlands (a major source of carbon emissions) mandatory after 2026.

On the downside, it ignores emissions related to the increased harvesting and use of bioenergy that took place between 2009-2012; and it allows member states to use forest credits to offset an additional amount of carbon, equivalent to leaving almost 200 million more cars on the road.

The climate impacts of forests are real and serious, weakening LULUCF rules weakens the EU’s climate commitment. Next week, the Parliament must vote yes to the ENVI report to ensure member states are doing their best to safeguard the planet and its people.