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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

Fighting Fossil Fuels First Making EU climate policy work for people and forests

This study refocuses attention on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions domestically, without offloading responsibilities onto other countries through offsets.

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PDF iconFighting Fossil Fuel.pdf2.64 MB

Roadmap to Paris takes a wrong turn

This Press Release explains why the European Commission's ‘Roadmap to Paris’ is a weakening of its commitment to reduce emissions by 40 per cent. By including forests and agricultural land, the European Commission has weakened its target since such land removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases. Different sources are now citing between 2.4 and 5 per cent reduction as a result of this inclusion meaning the target could in actual fact be 35 per cent or lower; a disaster given that climate science shows that even 40 per cent was not enough.

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PDF iconRoadmap to Paris.pdf197.88 KB

OUR LAND IS WORTH MORE THAN CARBON

Only immediate, drastic reduction of greenhouse gases will prevent a dramatic increase in the impact of this crisis even though it will still only limit it. Farming land cannot become an accounting tool for managing the climate crisis. It is fundamental to around a billion people in the world who are working towards food sovereignty, an inalienable right of people who have already been harmed enough. We support the continued existence of agriculture suited to meeting the agricultural challenges already magnified by the climate crisis.

NGOs publish best practice principles on LULUCF in 2030 climate and energy package

Today the EU Heads of State agreed on the main elements of EU’s 2030 climate and energy package and decided that policies for the land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector will be established before 2020. At the same time, nine NGOs publish best practice principles for how best to deal with LULUCF in the EU’s climate framework including that tackling the climate impact of the LULUCF sector should enhance the ambition of the overall climate framework while ensuring the full environmental value of EU land, wetlands and forests.

Principles and Recommendations: LULUCF and the EU climate and energy framework for 2030

Farmlands, wetlands and forests, which cover more than 90% of the EU’s land surface, will be harshly affected by climate change. This sector – known as Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) – is both a sink and a source of emissions. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has set rules about how developed countries should best measure emissions and removals in this sector.

Comprehensive land-use planning: A rights based approach

 
This discussion paper is supported by over 50 NGOs, networks and indigenous peoples organisations.

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