In or out? Debit or credit? The role of the land use sector in the EU climate policy still needs to be defined
The EU has a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030. This is an economy-wide target and therefore includes the land use sector, which includes land use, land use change and forestry. The EU is currently in the process of deciding how to integrate land use into this target. This is not an easy task, as we show in a new study.
The land use sector has several particularities that make it different from other sectors already included in the target, such as energy, industrial processes, waste, and agriculture. The most specific particularity is that the sector includes activities that cause emissions but also can lead to carbon being removed from that atmosphere, and taken up and stored in vegetation and soil. However, this removal is not permanent. Harvesting trees, and burning wood releases the carbon much more quickly than it was stored. Another particularity is that not all emissions and removals are directly caused by humans. This is especially true for removals from forest management.
In the past, the EU reported that uptake and storing of carbon through land use activities was higher than emissions from this sector. The European land use sector thus acted as a relatively stable net sink of emissions at around -300 to -350 Megatons (Mt) CO2 per year. But this might change in the near future: projections show the net sink declining to only 279 Mt CO2 in 2030.
Adding up carbon credits and debits
The emissions and removals that are actually occurring in the atmosphere are not exactly those that are currently accounted for under the Kyoto Protocol. Rather complicated rules exist that define what can be counted as credits and debits. Depending on how these rules develop, the EU sink may be accounted for to a large degree as a credit, or it could turn into a debit because the sink is getting smaller compared to the past. It is not likely that the entire sink will be turned into credits. Especially for the management of existing forests, which contributes a lot to the net sink, negotiators of the Kyoto Protocol have developed special accounting rules for the time before 2020. Under these rules, carbon credits only count if measured against a baseline.
The rules for the time after 2020 have not yet been agreed, however, as the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2020. In order to assess the impact of including the land use sector in the EU target in our new study, we had to make different assumptions, for example about how much wood we will harvest, the development of emissions and removals, and what the baseline for forest management should be. We then applied the existing Kyoto rules and alternative rules and assessed their impact on the level of ambition required to meet the EU’s target. It quickly became obvious: the assumptions we make and the rules we apply have very large implications for the 2030 Climate and Energy Framework.
One option of including land use discussed by the Commission is to take agriculture emissions out of the currently existing framework of the so-called ESD (an already existing mechanism to distribute mitigation efforts among EU Member States for specific sectors such as transport, buildings, waste and agriculture) and merge it with land use activities in a separate pillar. In our study we estimated the net credits that the land use sector could potentially generate, and found these credits could be as high as the entire emission reduction effort needed in agriculture. This would mean that in agriculture no reductions would be needed if the credits from land use were exchangeable between the sectors.
The impact on the target of 40% emissions reductions can be more than 4 percentage points if land use is included and the rules are not changed. This means that the original 40% target without land use would be reduced to an only 35% target. Other sectors would have to reduce their emissions less because land use seems to do part of the job. The target as a whole would thus become much less ambitious than it currently is. But this does not need to be the case. If accounting rules are changed in a way to account for the fact that the sink is getting smaller and smaller, land use would create debits. Including debits in the target would make it a 41% target instead and increase the overall level of ambition. This would be bad for the atmosphere because effectively emissions would not be reduced as much as needed.
It thus all depends on assumptions and rules. Before the rules are announced, the contribution of the land use sector cannot be quantified. Given this, we argue that the best option would be to keep land use separate from other sectors, give it separate target and design accounting rules that set incentives to increase the sink.
Böttcher H, Graichen J. 2015. Impacts on the EU 2030 climate target of inlcuding LULUCF in the climate and energy policy framework. Report prepared for Fern and IFOAM. Oeko-Institut.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.