Forestry emissions and the EU’s risky LULUCF debate

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

Emissions from EU forestry and land use change will need to be reduced by 30% by 2030. [Shutterstock/Anna Moskvina]

Proposed changes in the way the EU accounts for land use and land use change (LULUCF) emissions are scientifically flawed and could lead to dangerous global warming, writes Hannah Mowat.

Hannah Mowat is a campaigner at FERN, an NGO that keeps track of the European Union’s involvement in forest policy.

Healthy forests are crucial to achieving the Paris Agreement’s goals. There is not a single peer-reviewed scenario proposing how to limit global average temperatures to 1.5°C that does not include the need to sequester quite large amounts of CO2. If we need to do this, while avoiding dangerous geo-engineering, then we need a long-term target and vision for how to increase removals of greenhouse gases from forests.

But this does not take an ounce of pressure away from the need to decarbonise our energy sectors and significantly reduce emissions from fertilisers, meat production and industry processes. Even a casual glance at the carbon cycle shows that removals from forests do not cancel out these emissions.

This means the request from 10 member states  presented at the informal agriculture council this week asking for removals from the forest sector to count towards – and therefore water down – the Effort Sharing Decision, that covers 60% of the EU’s emissions, is scientifically flawed. Heeding it would risk overshooting our carbon budget, causing runaway climate change.

At the heart of this debacle is not a scientific debate, but a political one. The countries that have made this request are reacting to a rumour that the European Commission may not allow credits from forests. If this were true, it would be a sensible move, given the flawed accounting rules that these same countries support.

Forestry emissions and removals are measured against a business as usual projection, so as long as countries harvest less than they project, they get credits, even if the sink decreases.

That is the equivalent of the car manufacturers getting climate finance to make more polluting cars.

The letter, signed by agriculture and forest ministers, including from Austria, Romania, Finland and Slovenia, claims they practice sustainable forest management. It is precisely these countries that are planning to significantly reduce their forest sink by 2030.

Austria and Romania are planning to harvest so much wood that they will be cutting more than they grow by 2030. Since this would be business as usual, there is nothing to disincentivise this.

Added to this, illegal logging remains rife in Romania (as recent investigations show, undertaken by an Austrian company), so you won’t be blamed for asking what exactly is sustainable about all of this?

It is interesting to note that Poland, which is receiving international flack for plans to log its world heritage forest, did not sign this letter, despite forestry credits being a pet project of the current Minister. Perhaps their forest management is too obviously unsustainable?

At the moment, the Commission is raising serious questions over how far we can trust the current forest reference levels set by these countries, since early indications show it will lead to a windfall of undeserved credits by 2020. In 2013-2014 alone, this was in excess of 100MT. This is the equivalent of 50 million houses uninsulated, or staying with current CO2 standards for vehicles. In other words, it will lead to less action to reduce emissions, improve air and bring people out of fuel poverty.

It is surprising therefore that Sweden signed this letter, despite their position that the Land use, Land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector should not remove any effort to reduce CO2 emissions.

These 10 countries are not the only ones that are asking for a fast buck from forests. Ireland and Denmark also want credits, but since they don’t have many trees, they want credits from planting new trees. It is hard to understand what Denmark is going to get out of this, since they don’t propose much planting. But since Ireland is planning a major industrialisation of its agricultural model, it is hoping that its industrial tree plantation efforts will be credited in some way.

To have any chance to keeping within the carbon budgets for 1.5 or 2 degrees, while allowing developing countries to peak later than developed countries, the EU needs to make very radical emissions cuts, in the order of 10 per cent per year, and a long-term vision for how forests can help sequester some additional carbon.

The enhanced sinks that Austria, Romania, Sweden, Finland and others tempt us with should certainly be encouraged. But not at the risk of catastrophic climate change, which itself is the biggest risk to the health of forests.