Beyond LULUCF: Legal cover for a shrinking EU forest sink

11 September 2020

Beyond LULUCF: Legal cover for a shrinking EU forest sink

The Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) Regulation will measure − and allow − a drop in carbon storage without penalty. Without better laws, the future for forests looks bleak. 

The rules for accounting forest carbon will soon be put into practice with the European Commission’s recent publication of a proposed update to the Land Use Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) Regulation. The LULUCF Regulation sets the rules for accounting carbon emissions and removals from several land categories in the EU including forests, cropland, grassland and soon wetlands. As proposed, new reference levels allow another drop in how much carbon EU forests store, presenting a huge hurdle to climate ambition by the end of the decade. 

The European Commission is updating the legislation through a Delegated Act (EU jargon for a specific, pre-determined update to law) to add Forest Reference Levels for each EU country for the first half of this decade. The reference levels are the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbed − or in rare cases emitted − by forests in each country. In 2027, the amount of CO2 stored in the forest will be compared to these reference levels. As a result, countries have made the bar low.  

This will be the second step in the Regulation that has permitted carbon loss in forests.

First, they negotiated an artificially low starting point for how much carbon was stored in forests from 2000-2009, which allowed around 40 million tons of CO2 worth of increased harvesting compared to actual emissions.   

Now with the reference levels presented in the delegated act, Member States and the UK are allowed a drop of another 40 million tons of CO2 over the first half of this decade. Together these two drops amount to an 18.7 per cent drop in the carbon sink from levels in the early 2000s. 

This blow to the carbon sink jeopardises the integrity of the EU’s current climate target for 2030 and thwarts goals to maintain or enhance the carbon stored in forests.  

As the reference levels in the Delegated Act and recent analysis confirm, the LULUCF Regulation is not an adequate, nor sufficient instrument to enhance the contribution of the land sector to limit the average global temperature rise to 1.5°C. At best, it will maintain current logging practices over the upcoming decade − the same logging practices now having serious impacts on the health of European forests.   

Countries are more likely to increase ambition in the land-use sector if improved management practices are more closely connected to other policy targets (e.g. area of organic farming, hectares of restored ecosystems) and greenhouse gas inventories. A carbon removals target is clearly needed to increase ambition in the land sector.  

This should be the central debate when reviewing climate and land-use policy to increase the EU’s ambition. We must take older forests out of the line of fire, carve a pathway for biodiversity-friendly management practices, and support foresters to enhance the biodiversity and carbon stocked in their forests. We cannot achieve the EU’s climate targets without healthy ecosystems, and we have no policy to make that happen. 

  • The Delegated Act is open for public input until 14 September 2020:

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