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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

MEP letter on a robust effort sharing decision

On 20 July, the European Commission will make its proposal on how to integrate emissions from land and forests (LULUCF) into the climate and energy package.

However, this has not stopped the Environment Committee in the European Parliament from already forming an opinion.

EU urged to ensure that 2030 Effort Sharing Decision is fit for purpose

As the ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement gets under way, a group of NGOs and businesses have issued an open letter calling on the EU to ensure that the 2030 Effort Sharing Decision, its main climate instrument, is fit for purpose

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PDF iconESD_letter486.51 KB

LULUCF: what would a good proposal look like?

As the ratification process for the Paris Climate Agreement begins, a new Fern briefing has shown how the EU’s new policy on land and forests could help it to be more ambitious on its climate change targets, and set a positive precedent globally by developing a separate pillar - with its own target - for the so-called LULUCF sector.

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PDF iconLULUCF1.18 MB

Going beyond 40% - options to ensure LULUCF maintains high environmental integrity of the EU climate and energy package

As the ratification process for the Paris Climate Agreement begins, a new study produced by the Oeko-Institut for Fern has shown how the EU’s new policy on land and forests could help it to be more ambitious on its climate change targets, and set a positive precedent globally by developing a separate pillar - with its own target - for the so-called LULUCF sector.

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PDF iconLULUCF_target_Oeko_report221.48 KB

EU land and forests can help EU be more ambitious on climate, new study shows

As the ratification process for the Paris Agreement begins, a new study shows how the EU’s new policy on land and forests could help the EU be more ambitious given the Commission’s reluctance to increase climate targets.

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PDF iconLULUCF_target_press_release268.42 KB

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