Seeing the woods: EU lays out plan to capture more carbon from forests

The European Commission wants to develop a “'closer-to-nature' voluntary certification scheme, so that the most biodiversity friendly management practices could benefit from an EU quality label." [Photo: Frédéric Simon]

This article is part of our special report Forestry and climate change.

The European Commission on Wednesday (14 July) unveiled plans to build up carbon sinks, like forests and wetlands, as part of a broader package of climate legislation aimed at achieving a 55% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

The EU’s 2030 climate plan will require a U-turn when it comes to managing European forests, whose capacity to absorb climate-warming CO2 from the atmosphere has been decreasing over the years, the EU executive said.

The Commission followed up on Friday (16 July) with a new EU forest strategy, which includes plans to plant three billion trees across the EU by 2030.

The Forest Strategy seeks to increase “the quantity and quality of forests” in Europe, and “increase carbon sequestration through enhanced sinks and stocks” as a way to mitigate global warming, the European Commission said in a statement.

“Forests are an essential ally in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. They function as carbon sinks and help us reduce the impacts of climate change, for example by cooling down cities, protecting us from heavy flooding, and reducing drought impact,” the EU executive said.

Under the revision of the land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) regulation, Europe will go from capturing 263 million tonnes of carbon in 2018 to 310 million by 2030.

That is a huge shift in ambition as sinks were expected to decline under business as usual rules to only 225 million tonnes by the end of the decade.

Carbon sinks are crucial to tackling climate but they have seen a decline over the years because of natural disasters like fires and pests, which are becoming more frequent because of climate change.

“All is not well in our woods,” warned environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius. “We must ensure that all our ecosystems are restored, resilient and adequately protected and of course, that it works for the planet, for health and, of course, the health of our citizens, but also the competitiveness of our economy.”

EU countries already report on CO2 emissions from the LULUCF sector, but from 2026, they will face individual targets for carbon capture. Those will be decided by the end of 2025, a process that could be divisive as EU governments will need to decide how countries will share the burden of carbon removals among themselves.

Nordic countries stand to lose the most from the negotiation. In Finland alone, the forestry sector employs 15% of industrial workers, while in Sweden the forestry industry employs over 60,000 people directly and is indirectly responsible for around 200,000 jobs.

Delara Burkhardt, a German MEP for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in the European Parliament, welcomed the Commission’s proposal to introduce national targets for carbon sinks, saying this will provide EU member states with clear responsibility.

Counting the trees

The Europe Commission laid out plans to improve the counting of forests to simplify the implementation of the LULUCF regulation. In October, it will table “a legal proposal to step up forest monitoring, reporting and data collection in the EU” in order to better understand the evolution of Europe’s forests.

This will include mapping of primary and old-growth forests across Europe, in view of establishing a “strict protection” regime for them. This will be based on a common EU definition of old-growth and primary forests which is currently being discussed in EU expert groups.

Finnish MEP: 'Political fight begins' over Europe’s old-growth forests

The forests in Europe that can be considered “old growth” – and therefore declared protected areas – depends on the definition, says Petri Sarvamaa. “And that’s where the political fight begins,” he told EURACTIV in an interview.

Similarly, the European Commission is working on streamlining forest sustainability certification schemes, with the establishment of common benchmarks and thresholds. “And it’s not easy to reach because of the diversity of forests we have around the EU,” Sinkevičius said. 

In addition, the forest strategy is accompanied by a roadmap for planting three billion additional trees across Europe by 2030.

The strategy also lays out the changes needed to improve the quality and quantity of Europe’s forests, including more mixed forests with different species and ages of trees.

Trees need to be planted with awareness of biodiversity. Simply planting one tree species could actually have a negative impact on the local habitat and biodiversity, even if it improves carbon sequestration.

“Not all trees planted can be called a forest, and that is why we will go a step ahead looking at specific areas, specific species, which can be planted and create the forest of the future,” Sinkevičius said.

Incentives to build carbon sinks

Carbon farming could be a way to incentivise building up Europe’s carbon sinks. By the end of 2021, the EU will put forward a communication on a carbon removal certification that could see farmers and foresters sell these carbon permits to help businesses offset their emissions.

“Forest owners and managers need drivers and financial incentives to be able to provide ecosystem services for forest protection and the restoration to increase the resilience of their forests through the adoption of most biomass and biodiversity-friendly forest management practices,” Sinkevičius said.

But there have been mixed reactions to this. In the European Parliament, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) has welcomed the idea as something that could help give a financial incentive to protect forests.

But the S&D’s Burkhardt is more reserved about this: “I am sceptical whether a robust certification system for these activities can be developed at all.”

EU sets the scene for carbon removal actions in farming

A new carbon removal approach in agriculture will contribute to stepping up Europe’s climate ambition, the European Commission reiterated at the launch of its massive plan to cut carbon emissions by 55% before the end of the decade.

Environmental groups denounce lack of ambition

WWF, the global conservation group, welcomed the Commission’s push to restore European forests, as well as plans to establish an EU-wide forest observation and reporting framework.

However, they said the proposal was weakened compared to an earlier draft of the forest strategy, which contained a mandatory set of criteria for assessing whether a forest is “sustainably managed” or not.

According to WWF, the last-minute changes came after some member states and the forest industry claimed that the EU has no competence on forest-related issues and accused the Commission of “reducing forests to environmental considerations” without taking into account the socio-economic aspects.

Campaigners also criticised the European Commission’s vision for building up its carbon sinks, saying it lacks ambition. Activists had been calling for carbon sinks to store 600 million tonnes of carbon by 2030, almost double the amount in the Commission proposal.

“310 million tonnes is only half of what we need to tackle the climate emergency,” said Alex Mason, senior policy officer at WWF European Policy Office.

There are also concerns that including non-CO2 emissions from agriculture in the LULUCF regulation from 2031 – changing the acronym from LULUCF to AFOLU (agriculture, forestry and other land use) – will remove the incentive for agriculture to decarbonise.

“Natural sinks must not just be the magic wand for achieving climate targets or compensating for failed emission reductions in other sectors,” Burkhardt said.

“This would relieve some areas of agriculture, such as livestock farming or fertilisation, of
their responsibility for greenhouse gas reductions. After all, failures to reduce emissions in these areas could be compensated by CO2 credits from forests, peatlands and co,” she added.

But a senior EU official defended the Commission proposal, saying: “It is because we really see a great potential for synergies there, that indeed the foresters and the farmers look at and are conscious of the fact what they can do in order to enhance the carbon removals through their farming practices but also in sustainable forest management.”

Forestry and carbon sinks: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

The complex role of forests in regulating the Earth’s climate is set to become one of the most contentious issues in the upcoming revision of Europe’s energy and climate laws.

[Editing and additional reporting by Frédéric Simon]

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