Climate scientist: On forestry, COP26 must avoid double counting of carbon removals

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Professor of climate and environmental sciences at Universite Catholique de Louvain, former Vice-Chair of the IPCC, speaks during a press conference on evidence for the need to keep temperature to 1.5°C [Stephanie Lecocq / EPA-EFE]

This article is part of our special report Forestry at COP26.

Global leaders must not allow the double counting of emissions removals from forestry during negotiations at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, says Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele.

Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele is a climate scientist and former vice-chair of the IPCC. He is now a professor of Environmental Sciences at the UC Louvain university in Belgium. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Kira Taylor ahead of COP26.

Why are forests important in the fight against climate change and how can Europe grow the capacity of its forests to act as a carbon sink?

As everybody knows, forests are absorbing carbon. They also are providing many services to humanity in terms of biodiversity, oxygen provision, beauty provision, natural space to walk in, but storing carbon is also one aspect of all those useful services that forests provide to humanity.

Forests, also because they are destroyed, are one of the sources of CO2. It’s not the forests, of course, that are responsible for that – it’s the humans who are responsible for that destruction.

That deforestation is responsible for between 10 and 15% of global CO2 emissions, so there’s every reason to stop deforestation and to protect them so that they can store more carbon and provide all those other positive services.

How can Europe grow the capacity of forests to act as a carbon sink – do they just need to plant more forests or do they need to change the way that forestry is done?

From my understanding of the literature I know at least, it appears that keeping existing mature forests has a key role in that function of storing carbon.

Some people say we can plant new trees etc and it’s good to plant new trees, but the amount of carbon that a small coppice – or very young tree – is storing is almost negligible.

It’s only after decades that most tree species start to absorb a significant amount of carbon. So a key aspect in helping forests to store more carbon is actually to stop deforestation and to help the existing forests, particularly old and biodiversified forests, and not monocultures of trees planted a few years ago.

The best way to store more carbon is to first stop deforestation.

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Forestry will be one of the topics on the agenda at COP26. What are you hoping will come out of the summit? Could it be a moratorium for stopping deforestation?

Very frankly I don’t know. Of course, it would be nice to have a moratorium. COPs are very formal things usually. There’s usually a high level of resistance to introducing new elements that would have a legal force and would force countries to do something they don’t want to do.

The Paris Treaty doesn’t explicitly contain any provision to stop deforestation. It’s only when you start to discuss and interpret the goal of reaching carbon neutrality in the second half of the century, which is what’s written in the Paris Agreement text that you can comment that this means that, among many other measures, one needs to protect forests.

It’s not written in black and white that you need to stop deforestation, or even to decrease deforestation, even if it’s hard to imagine that reaching carbon neutrality, either by 2050 or only in the second half of the century, can take place without stopping as quickly as possible deforestation in the world.

I am not very optimistic, but I may be wrong, about a new legal text coming out of Glasgow. It’s even very hard to imagine because the legal texts usually require several years of preparation. Now, if it’s an intention that is pursued by several countries on a voluntary basis, that’s different. But then would the countries where most deforestation takes place sign such an aspirational text. I doubt it.

And countries like Russia and Brazil are pushing for greater recognition of the carbon absorption capacity of their forests at the UN level, what are the rules on carbon removal by forestry at this level?

What’s clear to me as a climate scientist is you cannot count carbon storage that is happening naturally in the forests of the world – not only in the forests by the way: also in the soils and in many ecosystems – two times.

There is a big natural loop of exchanges, which was taking place well before humans started to affect forests, between soils and land ecosystems, including forests, and the atmosphere. It’s of the order of 700-750 gigatons of CO2 that’s emitted by natural systems every year and absorbed every year.

Before disturbance by human activities, those huge fluxes were almost perfectly in balance. That’s one of the factors explaining why for most of the last 10,000 years, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was stable.

There are two big fluxes – one flux up, one flux down – between land ecosystems and the atmosphere, and it’s the same for the ocean. The fluxes are a little smaller for the ocean, but they’re also perfectly balanced. You cannot say we have some of this big flux absorbed by land ecosystems every year and some of that is on our territory, so this is a carbon sink we should be rewarded for. No. This is the natural flux that was taking place over millennia. It would be wrong to label this as the result of deliberate human or political efforts to get that negative flux of CO2.

It’s very different if you plant a new forest, for example, on a piece of land that was not used for that previously. If you can demonstrate in a rigorous and scientific way that the forest you have planted on this new piece of land is absorbing more CO2 than the ecosystem present there before, then it’s different. You can then start to argue that this is the deliberate result of human intervention. And that this could be rewarded as a service to humanity.

But to reward the CO2 fluxes which were happening naturally over the years without any human intervention would be completely wrong. I think much of what’s happening today in the large forests, either of Russia, Siberia, or Congo are natural fluxes, which shouldn’t be rewarded.

So it’s rewarding anything additional, but not what was already there.

Rewarding something additional and clearly the result of human intervention and scientifically demonstrated as delivering results. There are a few conditions in what I say. Climate change is not the only crisis you have in the environment at the global level.

Biodiversity is very important as well. Even if it was additional storing of carbon, if it’s happening in a monoculture, I don’t think the rewards should be as high as if it’s a diverse forest where there is a multiplicity of tree species and attention for biodiversity, together with climate. I think it would be much better to have that set up for the rewarding system.

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What do you think of net targets because those include carbon sinks so they include that natural flux, alongside emissions reductions. Do you think that also has a similar issue?

The atmosphere only understands the additional CO2 and other gases that are delivered to it. So if the atmosphere receives more CO2 on a net basis – and of course, this is on a net basis – then it means that the thermal insulation layer that we’re installing around the planet, is increasing in thickness.

So the concept of net CO2 emissions has some scientific value because, from the atmosphere point of view, from the climate point of view, it’s net emissions that matter.

But the other aspect is that the way that net emissions are assessed, evaluated, quantified needs to be very rigorous. When you cut the amount of coal or oil or gas that you burn in a factory or power plant, this results very clearly in an emission reduction. If you say we will plant trees, there’s more fuzziness. Also, think about the risk of forest fires.

When you have a net target you probably need to exert a lot more caution to consider it because of the risk of fire among other things, but there are other factors as well.

The atmosphere only understands net emissions, but when you’re on the ground, things become much more complex. It would probably be clearer to have separate targets for emissions and absorption because, as far as the absorptions are concerned, there are many question marks and many risks associated. If the net target is presented as the guarantee that the net emissions will decrease without taking into account those elements, it’s not ideal.

Should the UN allow trading of carbon removal permits, and how does it ensure that system is robust and isn’t abused?

It very much depends on what is the solidity of the information available about the net reduction – is it effectively a net reduction? Again, it would be probably clearer if it was a reward that would be separated between emissions and additional absorption clearly distinguished from the natural fluxes.

Europe is looking at legislation to prevent deforestation – in your mind is that enough?

In its present version, the renewable energy directive considers the usage of wood in the renewable part of the energy mix in Europe as carbon neutral. The assumption is that the wood absorbed carbon over its life, and that, when it’s burned in Europe, it can therefore be considered as a zero CO2 emission source.

That’s wrong. This should be considered as imported deforestation.

The EU doesn’t check how this wood has been acquired, whether it’s coming from old-growth forests and from the trunks of old trees, which absorb a lot of carbon and would continue to absorb a lot of carbon if they were left alone. Or if it comes from other sources, where it can be demonstrated that there was a sustainable way to exploit the forest. So, the assumption that wood coming from other countries is automatically CO2 neutral needs to be revisited.

Actually, the IPCC itself, which is often misquoted about this, says in Chapter 11 of the mitigation volume of working group three, the one published in 2014, it says there on page 879, “The assumption that the CO2 emitted from biomass combustion is climate neutral has often been used in the assessment of bioenergy systems.” Just two sentences later, “The shortcomings of this assumption have been extensively discussed in environmental impact studies and emission accounting mechanisms.”

It even says later, “Forest bioenergy systems can temporarily have higher cumulative CO2 emissions than the fossil reference system.”

The IPCC is sometimes used as an argument to burn the wood in coal plants. And used to reduce on paper the CO2 emissions from those coal plants. Then it’s often said, well, the IPCC allows for that or even recommends that, which it never did.

It’s very clear that a lot of caution needs to be exercised when importing biomass and I’m afraid this is not done at the moment in the EU. So this renewable energy directive needs to be revised along those lines and it has not been done up to now to my knowledge, at least.

Burning trees as climate mitigation: A resort to the Court

There is no debate that burning wood for energy emits more greenhouse gases per unit of energy than burning fossil fuels. Yet the EU’s renewable energy directive continues to uphold that burning forest wood is “carbon neutral,” write Jean-Pascal van Ypersele and Mary S. Booth.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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