Finnish MEP: 2020s need to be ‘decade of change’ for Europe’s depleting carbon sinks

Europe needs to be ambitious and restore its carbon sinks to help biodiversity and fight climate change, says Ville Niinistö, a Green lawmaker in charge of negotiating the European Parliament's position on the land use regulation [Jarno Kuusinen / EPA-EFE]

This article is part of our special report Carbon removals.

The next decade needs to see a decisive turnaround in the state of Europe’s depleting carbon sinks, with more incentives for foresters to capture CO2 from the atmosphere if Europe wants to meet its climate goals, says Ville Niinistö.

Ville Niinistö is a Finnish Member of the European Parliament affiliated to the Greens/EFA group. He is currently in charge of the drafting and negotiation of the land use, land use change and forestry regulation (LULUCF) revision.

Europe’s forests are being pulled in multiple directions – as homes for biodiversity, as ways to capture carbon and to sustain the livelihoods of local communities. How can the EU ensure balance between these roles while also improving the resilience and health of its forests?

This is precisely what we need to do in the 2020s – to make sure that Europe’s forests are directed in a direction where environmental and climate sustainability is at the core of how we manage them.

There will be still in the future a lot of bioeconomy solutions and some of them will be climate-smart and useful in replacing fossil fuels and have a substitution effect, but none of those can be credibly said to be sustainable if we don’t make sure that carbon sinks are properly increased and biodiversity loss is halted and even reversed.

You’ve drafted amendments to the European Commission’s LULUCF proposal that would see a huge increase in its carbon sink, from a target of sequestering 310 million tonnes of carbon by 2030 to capturing 490 million tonnes. Given Europe’s sinks are currently in decline, how would that be achieved and would it be detrimental to certain areas?

My idea is to show a vision for the member states to realise that land use really needs to change in Europe. We really need to realise that we are on the threshold of a totally new age when it comes to our responsibility to manage land sustainably both for the environment and climate.

There are loads of actions that we haven’t done and we have even done negative actions. We need to not just get back to the carbon sink levels we had 10 years ago as the Commission proposed – Europe has been degrading its sinks in the last 10 years.

But that’s not enough, we need to do a lot more. If we want to address climate change and be in line with the Paris Agreement’s targets and also look beyond 2050 and carbon negativity, carbon sinks should be increasing on a level that achieves something around 700 million tonnes by 2050.

This is a figure I’ve gotten from experts when I asked what would be a European carbon sink that is properly in line with the Paris climate targets and shows a good example that the other continents and countries then also follow in UNFCCC negotiations.

In order to get there, we really need to make sure that this is the decade of change. But at the same time, I really see this also as an opportunity for landowners, farmers and forest owners to get income from new sources.

The idea is to support the landowners also to get incentives and financing for solutions that increase sinks. I think we will see a lot of demand also from consumers and industrial buyers for production which has a low or even negative CO2 value.

That means that carbon farming will be mainstreamed within the next decade. So now it’s about creating a paradigm shift where there is financing available for this in the short term and, in the long term, channel all the EU’s and government’s rules and financing, including the common agricultural policy (CAP) money, into supporting carbon farming action.

Another low hanging fruit is restoration. We [need to restore] wetlands, peatlands and organic land, both [after the] uses of agriculture or more or less unsuccessful forestation of wetlands and peatlands that happened in many countries.

There has been a new study, estimating that about 300 million tonnes of CO2 increases can be achieved solely by properly doing restoration. So I think we do have chances to increase other forms of carbon sinks by 2030 in a way where it’s not just up to the forest to do the job.

Talking about going beyond forestry, you also introduce a subtarget for reaching a balance between EU level emissions and removals from cropland, grassland and wetlands by 2030 and achieving negative emissions in those areas after that. What steps would EU countries need to take to achieve that and can you see things like the 490 million tonnes and this make it through negotiations with EU countries?

We promised that we will do our best to come back next year in the next COP with a common push for Paris alignment in our targets. And we have to be honest, a 55% net emission reduction target for Europe where only 52.8% is actually emission reductions and the rest is sinks is not properly in line with our 1.5°C target.

By showing that we can do more in land use, I think we can also push other countries and groups of countries to do more in land use.

Member states have to also realistically understand that the 310 million times proposed by the Commission – they may feel it’s an increase, but since it’s only just going back to where we were 10 years ago, that is not enough in the times of climate crisis – they really need to realise that we should look at a higher number.

If I look at what other political groups said in the preliminary discussion of the draft report in the ENVI committee, I think there is a realistic chance of getting a majority in the Parliament for a figure that is well above the Commission’s proposal and closer to my own proposal.

Coming back to carbon farming, how could incentives for farmers and foresters to capture carbon work in practice? Could you ensure that these incentives would be more profitable than current practices – or at least not less profitable?

I think in the long term, a lot of the soil degradation that is happening in Europe and erosion also has to do with the poor management of land, where soil quality is weakened. Climate action and CO2 rich carbon farming practices are good for soil quality as well. So I think there is an added benefit here for farmers if financing is focused more on deep-rooted vegetation.

I think the big problem is that the common agricultural policy has given money up until now mainly on a hectare basis. Some of that money has actually been harmful to the climate and environment. In the Nordic countries for instance, and in a number of other countries as well, a lot of organic land has been drained for farmland, creating a lot of CO2 losses.

We have to make sure that all the subsidies and financing that we give via the national implementation of the current CAP is in line with our climate targets. And that we see that productivity in the long term in farming comes from better climate and environmental practices.

Then there is the really keen interest from the private sector already to finance projects which can show that the consumer end products will have even a negative CO2 value. So I think it’s important to create data and methods in all countries to show the CO2 effect of the whole food chain.

One disadvantage of natural carbon sinks is that they’re not permanent. So forests could catch fire, or as you say, there can be damage. What would happen if a forest involved in carbon farming went up in flames? How can that be reflected in carbon accounting? And how can the European Commission deal with the idea of liability?

There is the inclusion of natural disturbances factor in the Commission’s proposal. I even think it’s so high that it can be seen as a loophole. If it’s implemented too easily, it may take away efforts from the member states to do action that protects the sinks and just blame natural disturbances on human-caused phenomena.

I think it’s important to take into account that there is a need for a natural disturbance factor. I have proposed it to be half the size of the Commission’s proposal in order to make sure that countries pre-emptively address problems related to alien species creating problems in forests or forest fires and so on.

There are also technical solutions for capturing carbon, like direct air capture (DAC). Do you believe the EU should be taking steps now to enable these – and if so which ones? What balance do you see in the coming decades between technical solutions and natural sinks?

I think we need to restore ecosystems in a way that carbon sinks are increasing, where forests act as the natural carbon storage and sinks, and where we adapt our methods of using land into more biodiversity-supporting solutions. There are a lot of co-benefits in the approach to increase natural carbon sinks because we don’t only have the climate crisis, we have the ecosystem and biodiversity crisis.

Any technological, short-term fixes where the underlying problem is overconsumption, and overuse of natural resources is still not tackled will not be sufficient to address the whole environmental crisis.

I understand that there are some areas in industries where we will need to have added solutions based on technology and artificiality when it comes to capturing carbon. But those should be secondary to restoring the balance of our planet because that is the source of all life on our planet.

I do have concerns also regarding carbon capture in bioeconomy. I think we should not propose added public support for solutions that can actually increase and continue creating environmental problems. I don’t think that is something that can be counted as part of the LULUCF because the LULUCF has to be about the natural parts.

And there are also voluntary schemes when it comes to removals and offsets. The European Commission is trying to publish a certification system for these – what are you hoping will be in it? Have you got any concerns about it? How can we tackle the arising issues of double counting and fraud?

We have to be really careful about double counting. I have tried to propose more ideas – instead of creating an accounting system where we create a lot of loopholes and new flexibilities, we should have a rigid accounting system that shows that carbon sinks are increasing in the natural world and then that creates a mechanism of social acceptance and support for the bioeconomy solutions that come within that frame.

If that frame is solid, then whatever happens within it can be with good conscience sold as being environmentally friendly. I think some of the flexibilities that are being proposed, both between the member states and between the effort sharing sector emission reductions and LULUCF, are really harmful because they can actually create a ceiling of emission reductions and sinks instead of going for a solution where we have a floor on which to add action.

For example, the voluntary reserve that the Commission proposed under the effort sharing regulation. It allows member states not achieving their emission reduction targets to use the LULUCF credits of other EU countries as long as the EU as a whole achieves the 55% emission reduction target. That sounds to me like creating a maximum of net emission reductions at 55% and actually taking away efforts from emission reductions and replacing them with sinks. That is not a sustainable way of doing this.

We need to have more ambition on carbon sinks and LULUCF in the natural world – and that has to be a separate entity. Then we need to have more ambition in emission reductions. That creates markets for those market players that are really looking for long term solutions and not just short-term fixes.

In Glasgow, there was a clear agreement in the UNFCCC to make sure that countries that take action in another country don’t double count those emission reductions. The same needs to apply between compensation schemes and offsetting by private companies and countries.

So I have proposed projects that are part of an official offsetting and compensation scheme by a private company, that they claim to get benefits from, they should be taken off the public data and not be part of the public sink total because that would otherwise create a situation where you finance twice the same action.

Another added measure I proposed was to make sure that there is also public financing going to landowners taking action on carbon sinks. I propose that at least 5% of revenues of the current ETS from member states which go to carbon sink action in the land use sector.

I think there’s a big demand among forest owners and landowners for these kinds of solutions. But there hasn’t been enough public financing for that. I don’t think it’s impossible that 20, 30 years from now we could look at a similar market in the land use sector that we have in the ETS. There could be a cap on emissions from land-based sinks and then there can be trading within that, so those who do more action can get benefits from that action and those who fail to do action also as landowners, then they would need to pay for those emissions.

Finally, part of the Commission’s proposal for LULUCF has seen the merging of agriculture and the current LULUCF sector. You’ve spoken out against that. Why do you think it would be detrimental? And how can you reconcile that view with those in the AGRI committee who might like it?

This is something we really need to look carefully at. There are two sides to this coin. Obviously, it’s good to have more concerted action in agriculture, including non-CO2 based emissions, which are not part of LULUCF accounting currently – that is the methane emissions from livestock mainly.

But on the other hand, as long as the emission reduction targets are as low as they are in the Commission’s proposed model and if there is no separate subtarget for the agricultural sector, there is a high risk that the agricultural sector within a country but also between countries intends to get a free ride at the cost of forest sinks. That is something I really don’t support.

That’s why I have made a counterproposal of not including the methane emissions – they are still in the effort sharing sector, so countries need to address those as effort sharing targets are going up. But then the land-based agricultural sector would still have this 2030 target of 100 million tonnes on the EU level in my proposal to make sure there is concerted action on agriculture also in land use emissions.

An additional reason why I have decided to omit the non-CO2 based methane emissions is that it’s a totally different data set. It’s really hard to combine apples and pears in the same basket and then call it equal.

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