Decision time for EU forest and climate policy

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

According to a compromise proposal by EU Presidency holder Estonia, Member States could reduce their forest sink by 10% without incurring penalties. [Ya To / Flickr]

Forests are uniquely linked to climate change because they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So why is the EU on the verge of following a disastrous path in a key area of climate policy? wonders Hanna Aho.

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

With hurricanes, catastrophic floods and other extreme weather dominating the news this year, the need for political action to combat climate change could hardly be more glaring.

The European Union regularly stresses its commitment to tackling the issue and polls show that its citizens also want action. So why is the EU on the verge of following a disastrous path in a key area of climate policy?

Ahead of COP23, the latest round of UN climate talks, Estonia – holder of the EU presidency for the second half of 2017 – has been gathering support for a proposal which incentivises countries to increase the harvesting of their forests. The consequences would be grave.

Forests are uniquely linked to climate change. On the one hand, they cool the climate – the EU’s forests currently absorb a tenth of the union’s greenhouse gas emissions. On the other, intensive logging and deforestation have a serious negative influence.

For the past year, talks on how the EU accounts for emissions from its land and forest sector, a fiendishly complex area known as LULUCF, have been taking place. It has been a tortuous process, with different countries taking strikingly different positions and renowned scientists openly condemning the path that the EU appears close to adopting.

This week (October 13), the Council will finally reach their conclusion.

The European Commission’s original LULUCF proposal was simple: if a countries’ forest carbon sink (the amount of carbon that its forests annually absorb from the atmosphere) decreased compared to the baseline of continuing harvesting intensity during 1990-2009, the countries’ carbon budget would be debited, meaning they would have to make larger emissions cuts in other land use areas or buy credits from other countries. The logic was that this would give them an economic incentive to maintain and restore their forests’ sink capacity.

Yet Estonia is proposing to reduce the debits for increasing forest harvesting. Member States could therefore reduce their forest sink by 10% without incurring penalties.

Any reduction in the EU’s forest sink will have negative climate impacts and be at odds with the Paris Agreement which urges countries to conserve and enhance sinks and reservoirs of carbon, including forests.

Currently, 75% of annual forest growth is harvested in the EU. It is the 25% of unharvested growth that increases the carbon stored in forests, but the Estonian-led Council seems willing to give free allowances even to countries that have a higher than average harvesting levels, such as Sweden and Austria.

This is like rewarding children who are running rampant on a sugar rush with more sweets.

In addition to LULUCF accounting rules on managed forests, EU Member States remain undecided on how to deal with deforestation, a critical force that accelerates climate change around the world from Brazil to Indonesia. If the Council allows forest loss to go unaccounted for, this would set back global efforts to halt deforestation by decades, establishing a dangerous international precedent.

At the end of September, the implications of the weak accounting rules Estonia is proposing were criticised by almost 200 scientists in an open letter to EU decision-makers expressing their “grave concern” over the lack of a scientific basis in EU policy development. But instead of listening to these prominent experts from around the world, the likes of Sweden, Finland and France – who all present themselves as climate leaders – have been at the forefront of trying to weaken the EU’s LULUCF rules.

If the current Estonian proposal becomes reality, it would mean the forest sector will be the only one allowed to increase its emissions – leaving the others to pick up the bill.

EU citizens want to build effective climate regulation and for the majority of people, forests’ greatest benefit is their ability to absorb carbon dioxide and cool the climate.

Policy-makers must not ignore their citizens’ wishes, rigorous scientific evidence and climate change victims.

Forest accounting rules put EU’s climate credibility at risk

Forest mitigation should be measured using a scientifically-objective approach, not allowing countries to hide the impacts of policies that increase net emissions, writes a group of environmental scientists led by Dr Joanna I House.

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