Forests and climate in the EU: trading pollution reduction for forest ambition

4 May 2021

Forests and climate in the EU: trading pollution reduction for forest ambition

On 22 April 2021, a provisional agreement between the European Commission, Parliament and Council on the EU Climate Law saw the EU commit to reducing annual greenhouse gas emissions to 52.8 per cent below 1990 levels. The headline 55 per cent target is a ‘net’ one, meaning governments can count removals of carbon dioxide towards meeting their share of the target. This agreement misses the chance to demarcate carbon removals and emissions reductions, and opens a discussion about what future ambition should be for forests and land.

According to the latest UN Environment Programme Emissions Gap Report, 52.8 per cent is more than 10 per cent too low. The Gap Report shows that the world must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6 per cent each year if we are to limit the world’s global temperature increase to 1.5°C – which translates roughly into a 65 per cent emission reduction by 2030. 

NGOs and scientists have been advocating for separate targets for carbon removals and emission reductions, to stop countries from relying on the possibility of land-use removals instead of making necessary emissions reductions elsewhere. Merging both targets will water down overall climate ambition, reducing our chances of preventing climate breakdown. 

Policymakers did, however, agree to cap the removals that can be counted towards the net target. The cap of 225 megatons of carbon dioxide means 2.2 per cent of the 55 per cent target can be met by counting the carbon uptake from land and forests – even though forest health is declining.

The number 225 equals the amount that all land use sectors are expected to remove in 2030 if they comply with the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) Regulation. This business-as-usual scenario accepts that even though increased harvesting means that forests will be storing less carbon in 10 years’ time, the fact they still remove some carbon can be used as an excuse to decrease polluting industries’ efforts to reduce emissions.

Fighting climate change means reducing emissions and making nature more resilient, but combining the two in one target makes it seem like it is either/or. EU forests are currently removing and storing less carbon, and this target will not encourage countries to turn this around. So, now that the cap has been set for the 2030 target, those fighting for increased ambition in forests have set their sights on land-use targets in the July revision of the LULUCF Regulation. NGOs hope the Commission will take the opportunity to address Europe’s declining carbon sinks without further sacrificing effort in other sectors.

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