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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

Cheating the climate: the problems with aviation industry plans to offset emissions

The UN Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas does not cover emissions from international aviation. These are regulated by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which has been tasked with adopting a proposal to tackle emissions from international aviation.

Fern reaction to Commission's proposal for LULUCF regulation

Commission’s forest proposal weakens EU Paris climate commitment

The European Union’s fight against climate change has been undermined by new proposals for tackling emissions from land and forests. The proposals outlined today by the European Commission for integrating emissions from land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) into its climate and energy package, will allow Member States to emit more, bringing the EU’s headline ‘at least 40 per cent’ reduction target down to less than 39 per cent, when all loopholes are accounted for.

LULUCF and Starting Point in the non-ETS sectors

This letter from eleven NGOs urges the European Commission to ensure that the final decision on the effort sharing decision is not watered down, but instead that ambition is increased. The letter makes two recommendations:

Why LULUCF cannot ensure that bioenergy reduces emissions

The European Commission is currently reviewing the sustainability of uses and sources of bioenergy for the period after 2020. They will also propose a new policy on how to include the land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector in the EU’s 2030 climate and energy framework. This briefing note presents the problems of relying on LULUCF to ensure bioenergy reduces carbon emissions.

UK referendum must not derail EU climate policy

Brussels- based green NGOs, including Fern, have urged the European Commission to push on with its 2030 climate legislation - despite the uncertainty in the wake of the UK referendum result. 

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