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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

Misleading numbers summary

This is the summary version of misleading numbers. It outlines that fossil and land-based carbon are not interchangeable and that emissions from fossil fuels cannot be negated by increasing or protecting the storage potential of forests and other land based carbon.

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PDF iconmisleadingnumbers_summary.pdf439.22 KB

Misleading numbers: The Case for Separating Land and Fossil Based Carbon Emissions

The word ‘carbon’ appears with relentless ubiquity in the news and in government policy and legislation. It is discussed as if it were a simple, almost abstract and easily quantifiable substance. However, like many ubiquitous words or concepts, the term ‘carbon’ needs some unpicking. The report outlines that accounting for land use carbon emissions is imprecise, costly and resource intensive, and the word ‘accounting’ — which implies real numbers — is misleading. 

Carbon Discredited: Why the EU should steer clear of forest carbon offsets

The N’hambita Forest Carbon Offset Pilot Project, run by the company Envirotrade, and initially funded by European Commission (EC) money, has failed to deliver most of its climate change, development, financial and learning objectives. Envirotrade suggest that emissions have been offset against supposed carbon stores in Mozambique, which they cannot calculate because of the problems inherent in baselines and the impossibility of verifying claimed savings. 

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PDF iconNhambita_internet.pdf773.13 KB

REDD+ safeguards: more than good intentions? Case studies from the Accra Caucus

This is the third volume of case study reports from the Accra Caucus on Forests and Climate Change, reporting on the implementation of REDD+ in the following countries; Guyana, Nepal, Indonesia, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Brazilian organizations urge California not to accept REDD offset credits in cap-and-trade scheme

Organizations and activists based in Acre and Brazil more widely have written to the Governor of California to express their opposition to the proposal of the government of the U.S. state of California to “reduce” its CO2 emissions through the acquisition of REDD+ offsets from the states of Acre and Chiapas, instead of pursuing emissions reductions in California itself.

Joint NGO letter to Justine Greening re: new UK forest problem

This joint letter from eight NGOs urges Justine Greening MP to ensure that the proposed new UK ‘forest programme’ materialises by ensuring that the Ministries in charge develop the programme through a consultative and collaborative process and set a clear deadline for adoption of the programme and for a mechanism to disburse funds.

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PDF iconLetter to Justine Greening.pdf412.89 KB

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