Restoring wetlands benefits both biodiversity and carbon storage. Photo: © Basotxerri / Shutterstock.com
Revising LULUCF regulation could be a chance for both climate and biodiversity
The European Union carbon sink must more than double by 2030. The cheapest way to do this is by protecting and restoring forests, peatlands, and other natural ecosystems.
While drastic emission reductions are key to averting catastrophic climate change, diverse and resilient lands and forests have long been recognised as equally important. The ways we use our land and forests require urgent changes which should be in line with the speed and scale of the climate emergency we are facing.
Following an agreement on a revised EU 2030 target of at least 55% net greenhouse gas emission reductions, in July the European Commission presented proposals to revise the EU climate and energy legislation for the period 2021–2030, including the EU Regulation on Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry, known as LULUCF, which aims to tackle the carbon flows in forests and on land in the EU.
In recent years the EU carbon sink provided by the LULUCF sectors has decreased significantly to a value of 265 Mt of CO2 in 2019. This last figure consists of around 135 Mt of emissions (mainly from croplands, wetlands and land conversion to settlements) and 400 Mt of removals (mainly from managed forests). Under the current policy the sink is allowed to further decrease to 225 Mt by 2030 without member states accumulating any debits. This is what is expected if member states move on with their plans to increase forest harvesting and continue to drain peatland soils for agriculture, forestry and peat extraction.
To meet the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement, the LULUCF sectors need to urgently increase the amount of CO2 that is removed from the atmosphere and stored in landscapes. This must be done while restoring ecosystems in order to support and enhance the long-term viability of natural resources, ecosystem services, biodiversity and ecological food production. If the EU wants to contribute towards limiting warming to 1.5°C without significant overshoot, there is a pressing need for the land sector to be part of the solution over this current decade.
European NGOs call on the EU to aim to increase the LULUCF sector’s net carbon sink to 600 Mt of CO2 annually by 2030. This is based on a number of academic studies assessing the potential size of an ecologically viable LULUCF sink in the EU, aligned with adaptation needs and the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy. Öko Institute’s exploratory analysis, which reviews a wide range of studies, assesses a potential for an EU net sink of up to 600 Mt annually by 2030. The EU Transition Pathways Explorer EUCalc, put together by a large academic consortium, shows potential for a LULUCF sink of 570 Mt per year in 2030, and 787 Mt in 2050.
To achieve a net LULUCF carbon sink of 600 Mt by 2030 there need to be radical changes in the way we use land across the EU. Most importantly, forest harvesting rates must be reduced significantly and forests must be managed with a close-to-nature approach, as the forests’ ability to absorb carbon is closely related to harvesting rates. There needs to be a significant reduction in the consumption and production of animal products, such as meat and dairy, a reform of the EU’s bioenergy rules, and a shift to a more circular economy. Emissions from organic soils need to be drastically reduced, through careful application of re-wetting approaches, and carbon stocks on cropland need to be dramatically increased, through a major expansion of agroforestry and other climate and biodiversity-friendly farming practices.
Net removals by the LULUCF sector need to be additional to emission reductions in other sectors and kept under a separate target with no flexibility with the Emissions Trading System (ETS) and Effort Sharing Regulation (ESR) sectors. This is critical because emission reductions and removals in the LULUCF sector are not equal to emissions in other sectors and the two cannot simply be considered interconvertible. Measuring emissions and removals in the land sector is less accurate and land-based carbon stocks cannot be considered permanent in the same way as reducing fossil fuel emissions and keeping fossil fuels in the ground can. The climate and ecological crisis requires all sectors to exert their maximum effort, without progress in one undermining progress in the other.
The LULUCF sector is fundamental, not just to climate change mitigation, but also to the EU’s natural environment, its wildlife and people. Changes in the incentives for forestry and land use can have either negative or positive consequences for biodiversity. The revised legislation must remain mindful of the impacts to biodiversity and ensure that concrete links are drawn between the LULUCF Regulation and the EU’s biodiversity objectives, including those set out in the Biodiversity Strategy, in the Restoration Law and the Birds and Habitats Directive.
The revision of the LULUCF Regulation is an important opportunity in the EU’s aim to mitigate both climate and biodiversity crises. For this to happen, more adequate targets as well as better-defined and transparent rules are needed in order for the LULUCF sector to stay in line with the path towards climate neutrality. Protecting and restoring forests, peatlands, and other natural ecosystems remains the cheapest, most effective and only readily available way to accomplish that.