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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

Unearned credit: Why aviation industry forest offsets are doomed to fail

Unlike other sectors, international aviation is not included in 2015’s Paris Agreement. This has allowed aviation to lag behind other sectors when it comes to reducing emissions.

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PDF iconUnearned Credit.pdf1.87 MB

Airlines’ ‘action’ on climate change means doubling emissions

This press release exposes the flaws in the airline industry’s plans to offset its carbon emissions. It is also available in German.

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PDF iconICAO final.pdf467.91 KB
PDF iconICAO Fern PR_DE.pdf585.14 KB

How the EU Governance Regulation can help achieve negative emissions

This briefing explains that there is effectively only one realistic and sustainable way to remove large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere (negative emissions): forests.

Forests and climate will suffer from Council’s decision

EU Environment ministers today bowed to pressure from a small nucleus of nations led by Finland, and opted for damaging new carbon accounting rules on land and forests (known as the LULUCF Regulation). This press release explains why this matters for the climate and explains the history of the negotiations in a nutshell.

MEPs fail dismally on forests and climate

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have undermined the EU’s fight against climate change and reversed years of painstaking work by scientists, campaigners and others by voting for a last-minute amendment on how EU nations account for emissions from their land and forests sector – the so-called LULUCF Regulation. This press release explains the damage their vote will do to climate ambition and bioenergy legislation.

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PDF iconFinal LULUCF PR.pdf442.08 KB

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