September 17th, 2017
Scientists and NGOs have reacted with dismay to a European decision to allow member states to increase their levels of timber harvesting up to 2030.
On 13 September, the European Parliament passed an amended policy framework for future EU land use policy, particularly regarding forestry.
Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) was intended to be a symbol of Europe’s commitment to tackling climate change.
Current harvest rates mean that forests act as net carbon sinks and initial proposals were designed to ensure that all deforestation would have to be offset either by replanting or sustainable forest management.
However, according environmental groups and scientist late revisions to its accounting procedures now essentially mean that emissions from biomass will essentially not be counted.
The changes to LULUCF were implemented by the centre-right European People’s Party, backed by the neoliberal Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and the European, Conservatives and Reformists.
The changes were welcomed by the forestry industry and by the Confederation of European Paper Industries which called the vote “a positive step” forward.
Linda Zuidema, bioenergy campaigner with the NGO Fern, however, said that the amendments will create “incoherence between the LULUCF and the Renewable Energy Directives.”
The EU’s Renewable energy directive sets a binding target of 20% final energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020
“We are subsidising bioenergy on the assumption that we are accounting for its emissions in LULUCF, but the changes made by the Parliament mean this simply will not happen,” added Ms Zuidema.
Another aspect of LULUCF to receive criticism is the concept of negative emissions, whereby increasing forest cover is seen as a way of trapping more carbon than is being released by other industries.
Some environmental groups have welcomed the idea of increased afforestation, but others say it will only encourage ecologically insensitive monoculture models, where single-variety fast-growing crops are planted for short-term profits.
Such incentives might also encourage displacement of farmland, especially in poorer parts of the world, groups have warned.
In addition, the rules will do nothing to discourage or account for the carbon cost of imported wood pellets from the US or cheap biomass from South East Asia such as palm kernel shells, until recently used by Bord na Mona to co-fire alongside peat.
If the true emissions of these products are not counted by the EU, then scientists worry that the EU is shirking its commitments to reduce its carbon footprint.
Experts such as William Gillet, energy policy director for the European Academies of Science Advisory Council, warned that available forest wastes and residues “could be exceeded within a few years” if we allow for continued recent rapid growth in the EU demand for imported forest biomass for power generation.
“There is a risk that forest carbon stocks will be reduced and the 1.5°C warming target in the Paris agreement will not be achieved,” he added.
According to Ariel Brunner, Senior Head of Policy at BirdLife Europe, if we don’t make effort to leave our forests in place, all that stored carbon will go into our atmosphere.
“It really is that simple,” he said, adding that hiding emissions through “rigged accounting can’t fool the atmosphere”.
One universally welcomed emergence from LULUCF is the fact that from 2026 wetlands will be included when accounting for emissions.
This may come too late for many of Ireland’s endangered bogs, but the certainty that carbon-rich wetlands will eventually be given carbon credits could change the dynamics of land drainage and reclamation in the near future.