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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

Designing a LULUCF pillar that works for forests and climate

This report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy was commissioned by Fern to develop proposals for how best to include the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) sector's emissions and removals in the EU’s climate target framework. Our underlying objective is to bring LULUCF into the framework in ways which genuinely add to the EU’s mitigation contribution to tackling climate change.

Read our press release about this briefing here.

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PDF iconIEEP_LULUCF_report890.66 KB

Addressing land use vital for Paris climate agreement

A group of NGOs, including Fern, has outlined its position ahead of the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris. They emphasise that land use has a crucial role to play both in attempts to tackle climate change, and to ensure food security, and should underpin strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to their consequences.

Mending the circle – How the Circular Economy could work for forests

As the European Commission considers an ambitious strategy that can spur a circular economy in the EU, Fern has prepared a position paper on how to break the ‘take-make-use-dispose’ model in favour of one that re-uses, repairs, refurbishes and recycles – and outlines the role that forests can play.

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PDF iconbriefing_circular_economy254.71 KB

New research shows risk of including land use and forests in EU’s emissions target

Two days before the European Union closes its consultation on the role that land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) should play in EU climate effort, new research reveals that including this sector in emissions reductions plans would cause havo

Impacts on the EU 2030 climate target of including LULUCF in the climate and energy policy framework

The European Union (EU) has a target to reduce emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030. This is an economy-wide target and therefore includes the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) sector. This study looks at how to integrate LULUCF into the EU’s 2030 Climate and Energy Framework.

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PDF iconLULUCF_2030_revised_b696.06 KB

Fern’s response to EU LULUCF Consultation

Fern's response to this consultation concludes that the challenge of limiting global warming to two degrees is so great that effort should be made in all sectors. By maintaining Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) separately, the EU avoids reducing its ambition and gives itself the opportunity to create real ambition to maintain carbon stocks and reduce emissions in LULUCF.

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PDF iconLULUCF consultation_Fern.pdf243.17 KB

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