Parliament votes on counting carbon from trees

With forests covering a whopping 42% of the EU’s land surface, how to account for the carbon dioxide absorbed by trees when calculating climate emissions has long been a tricky task.

This week it was the turn of MEPs to tackle the thorny issue, as the European Parliament voted on how to integrate greenhouse gas emissions from forests into existing EU climate rules that are designed to help the bloc meet its obligations under the 2015 global Paris climate deal.

Emissions from forests are not yet included in the EU’s accounting scheme for calculating carbon emissions, and last year the European Commission came up with a new plan to take into account what experts describe as ‘LULUCF’, shorthand for the impact land use, land use change and forestry have on the climate.

The ability of trees to store carbon dioxide and stop it being released into the atmosphere is arguably one of the planet’s greatest weapons against global warming. Changing patterns of land use such as too much clearing of crops to grow animal feed can therefore be disastrous for the climate.

But when it comes to considering the impact land use, land use change and forestry have on the climate, environmental NGOs have also warned of the dangers of ‘creative carbon accounting’.

As forests and land absorb more carbon than they emit, including them under the same climate target as the transport, energy, and agriculture sectors can allow these sectors to ease up on their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. This means that emissions from livestock and fertilisers, for example, could effectively be ‘hidden’ by the carbon absorbed by forests if the ‘LULUCF’ sector does not have its own target.

Many in the forestry industry sector have argued that they should be able to continue to harvest trees in such a way that would effectively allow them to cut more trees down in the future without counting the resulting loss of carbon.  And it was this approach that won the day at this week’s European Parliament vote, with the adoption of an amendment to the EU’s carbon accounting plans that would exclude the climate impacts of forests from the rules.

For groups like the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) this result is a “win-win for Europe’s climate strategy”. However, the centre left Socialists and Democrats political grouping of MEPs described the result as an “unambitious compromise”.

Hanna Aho, Forest and Climate campaigner at Brussels-based NGO FERN, also criticised the outcome of the vote:

“This vote shows that MEPs have not fulfilled their responsibilities to protect us from climate change. They have buckled under the pressure exerted by countries desperate to increase the harvesting levels of their forests without honestly accounting for them. This leaves us blind in the face of climate change.”

Ariel Brunner from BirdLife Europe added:

“Hiding emissions through rigged accounting can’t fool the atmosphere. If we don’t keep the carbon in the forest, we’ll have it in our atmosphere, it really is that simple.”

Now that the Parliament’s report has been adopted, the Finnish MEP Nils Torvalds, the European Parliament’s negotiator on the topic, will enter three-way talks with the European Commission and the European Council.

To find out more about LULUCF (arguably one of the EU’s most baffling acronyms), take a look at this great explainer video!