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What are carbon sinks?

A carbon sink is anything that absorbs more carbon than it releases as carbon dioxide. European forests are currently a net carbon sink as they take in more carbon than they emit. In climate negotiations, this temporary reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is also known as negative emissions.  

Forest carbon sinks are not an excuse to delay action in reducing fossil fuel emissions. This is because carbon absorbed by trees is dynamic. Forest carbon moves between the atmosphere (as carbon dioxide) and the tree (as carbon) in a continuous cycle, known as the forest carbon cycle.

Carbon stored in fossil fuel is static, remaining trapped outside the atmosphere for thousands of years.  This means that forests can never cancel out or ‘offset’ emissions from fossil sources. Using forest carbon sinks to justify carbon dioxide emissions from fossil sources will increase concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, making it impossible to meet the global goal of keeping international temperature rises to well below 2°C.

Despite the clear difference between fossil and forest carbon, United Nations climate negotiators often suggest that planting trees or reducing deforestation is equivalent to reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels. Until this myth is finally busted, schemes to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD), the Clean Development Mechanism or LULUCF have the potential to do more harm than good.

While it is quite possible to keep coal in the hole and oil in the soil, no government or company can ever ensure that carbon will remain in trees. Forest fires, insect outbreaks, decay, logging, land use changes and the decline of forest ecosystems as a result of climate change are all hard or impossible to control. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to protect and restore forests, just that we need to do it at the same time as reducing fossil fuel emissions to zero.

For more information on any of these issues please see REDD-Monitor or Fern’s video on LULUCF.

Most recent publications

Implications of new research for the IPCC 1.5°C special report, with a focus on land use

Interested scientists are currently invited to review the Second Order Draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on
how to achieve the 1.5°C target. Assembled here are key findings from a number of papers that appeared in the latter half of 2017 and pertain to the land-use sector.

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PDF iconland use and 1-5 degrees.pdf671.06 KB

Response to the Verified Carbon Standard

By Fern

In November 2017, Fern published new research showing why forest carbon offsets should be ineligible for the United Nations (UN) ICAO. The VCS issued a public “rebuttal” to our publication.

Fern wishes to reassert why forest offsets and, more broadly offsetting itself, is not a viable solution to climate change or a way to protect communities’ rights.

Return of the trees

By Fred Pearce

To have a fair chance of limiting global temperature rise to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius, it will be necessary to remove at least 500 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere. The best way to do this is to work with local communities to restore degraded forest ecosystems. As this report shows, this is entirely possible. 

It must, however, go hand in hand with halting forest loss and reducing fossil fuel consumption. Not instead of. Governments around the world have made pledges such as the Bonn Challenge to support restoration and reforestation projects, but even if the Bonn challenge is successful it would only remove 50 billion tonnes, 10 per cent of what is needed.

Community-led forest restoration helps fight climate change

December 19, 2017 (Brussels) - Restoring natural biologically diverse forests could remove 500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, making a significant impact in the fight agai

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PDF iconReturn of the Trees PR.pdf114.48 KB

How the Fiji UN climate summit affects forests

Kate Dooley was in Bonn, tracking the developments in the UN climate summit. She has written this overview of the talks from a forests perspective for Fern. 

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PDF iconComment COP23.pdf1.17 MB

While climate change wreaks havoc, airlines hide plans to double emissions behind a widely discredited scheme.

By Julia Christian

In Bonn last month delegates from around the world discussed how to implement the Paris Climate Change Agreement  – which aims to tackle the greatest threat currently facing the planet.

At exactly the same time almost 6,000 kilometres away in Montreal, representatives from the global aviation industry were hell-bent on undermining the Agreement’s aims.

The absurd scenario simultaneously playing out in different meeting rooms on different continents can be traced back to the 1997 climate talks in Kyoto.

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