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Lawmaker: ‘For the first time, we will have an EU-wide active carbon sink policy’

EU countries and the European Parliament have reached an agreement on the land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) regulation. What are the key aspects of this agreement?

This regulation is not just about accounting but also progressive targets and implementation. For the first time, we will have a European-wide active carbon sink policy that will increase the sustainability of our land use and contribute increasingly to achieving climate neutrality and, even beyond that, to achieve negative emissions.

The most important aspect is, of course, that at EU-level, we now have an agreement that we must reverse the trend of the past 10 years of decreasing sinks.

We now have a binding EU target to reach -310 megatonnes of net removals by 2030. This will allow the EU to reach around -57% of net greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2030 economy-wide. We have binding targets for each Member State [that distribute the -310 megatonnes target between them].

For the first time, Member States will have to report on how they took into account the ‘Do no significant harm’ principle when adopting policies and measures to meet their LULUCF target. So the new LULUCF Regulation is not just an accounting framework, but we also start assessing what kind of policies Member States put in place to manage their sinks.

The agreement includes building up Europe’s carbon sink to reach 310 million tonnes of sequestered carbon. What instruments do member states have at their disposal to reach this target? In which areas do you see the biggest potential for removals: in forests, soils, oceans or something else?

This is a task for each Member State to think about: how can they have the maximum increase of sinks while at the same time supporting biodiversity and doing it in a cost-efficient manner? The answer is very different from one Member State to another.

The LULUCF regulation encourages Member States to start thinking of their land use policies holistically. Clever Member States will already take into account the future requirements of the Nature Restoration Law and will do actions that benefit both climate and biodiversity.

Europe’s main carbon sink – the forest – has been declining. What can member states do to reverse this trend and reach the legally binding target?

Reaching the legally binding targets should not be so difficult as -310 megatonnes of sequestered carbon is merely going back to the level we had in the beginning of 2010s.

We just need to go back to using land a bit less intensively, promote sustainable practices such as carbon farming and regenerative methods of agriculture and forestry, and reverse the trend.

Member States can choose to implement measures that change how intensive harvests are and they can also, for example, set limitations on the rotation period of harvests.

Nature restoration helps as well as halting deforestation caused by urban planning, infrastructure projects or agriculture. Also on agricultural land there is an abundance of measures that can be taken and Member States should support sink policies with their CAP strategic plans.

Climate change is increasingly impacting the environment and damaging sinks with events like forest fires. How is this reflected in terms of carbon accounting?

Member States have a number of flexibilities at their disposal that they can use, also in case of natural disturbances or by the long-term impact of climate change.

At the same time, it is important to be aware that there are many ways for Member States to anticipate the effects of climate change and take on climate and biodiversity smart land management actions.

These include, for example, avoiding monoculture plantations: Portugal suffers specifically from massive fires due to eucalyptus plantations, the non-native eucalyptus trees are like candle sticks in the heating climate.

Also in the Nordics, we should go more towards close-to-nature forest management methods and away from the intensive forest management which currently means we mainly plant two to three tree types in most of the forests. These planted forests, with very few tree types, are more vulnerable to pests and diseases than natural or semi-natural forests.

How can the EU improve its monitoring, reporting and verification? Are satellites the silver bullet? Or do you need on-the-ground verification and reporting as well?

It is clear that we need better monitoring at EU-level. The EU can improve monitoring by creating a framework for the combination of remote sensing solutions (Copernicus, Lidar) and in situ monitoring.

Remote sensing can reduce monitoring costs significantly, but also requires that certain
data are validated in the forests. I sincerely hope that the Member States will have a constructive approach to the upcoming forest monitoring law and that they will not try to water it down – we need to have better data on what is happening in our forests.

There are criticisms of the number of flexibilities in the LULUCF regulation. What
flexibilities have been left in and are you happy with them?

It is clear that the European Parliament wanted to have a more stringent regulation with less flexibilities, but EU legislation is always a compromise between the positions of the co-legislators.

Flexibilities were very important for Member States and the most important flexibility for them was to have annual variation on the years leading up to 2030, instead of strictly binding annual targets.

The European Parliament felt that, for the sake of a compromise, it could agree to this flexibility, as it will be accompanied by the obligation to adopt corrective action plans, similar to what has been agreed in Effort Sharing.

Member States will have access to other flexibilities, including the possibility to use Emissions Allocations they may have in excess in Effort Sharing. This already exists in the current LULUCF Regulation, but it is quite unlikely that these swaps will happen given the new Effort Sharing targets Member States will need to achieve.

Excess LULUCF credits that are generated can also be sold to other Member States, which was already the case in the old LULUCF Regulation.

An additional flexibility is available, in particular to compensate for emissions generated by natural disturbances, by the long-term impact of climate change (particularly important for Spain) and as a result of an exceptionally high proportion of organic soils (mostly Ireland).

The EU is planning to propose a certification framework for carbon removals. What do you think should be included in this proposal? And what are your main concerns about it?

We need regulation that complements, not replaces, the necessary direct greenhouse gas emissions reductions. If we talk about ”compensation” for hard-to-abate sectors, we need to properly define what are “unavoidable emissions” instead of opening the door to greenwashing company claims.

We need a strong ‘Do no significant harm’ and precautionary principle, yet it seems that the European Commission might leave these and the implementation level details for delegated acts.

We have a clear risk of creating “another Taxonomy”, like the Sustainable Finance Taxonomy, with detailed rules, including the definition of quality standards for each product/measure, via delegated acts, on advice from a dedicated expert group with a clear risk of it not being independent from political and business interests.

There are concerns about the inclusion of carbon stored in products and some areas of carbon farming, like soils, which may not store carbon for long enough. What do you think should be included and what differentiation would you want to see between methods of removals?

Every actor must be transparent about volumes and time scales. Fossil and biogenic carbon cycles are not fungible. For this reason, offsetting emissions with carbon farming is problematic: emissions are permanent on human timescales.

Sink action is more short to medium term. Carbon farming is good for sinks but not guaranteed to have the same time scale as it needs continuous work.

The forest industry often likes to emphasise the role of woody biomass based carbon storage products and their potential to replace fossil-based products. We have to use the limited, sustainably sourced biomass wisely, ideally on products that store carbon for a long time, such as wood construction.

Short-term products that store carbon only for a few years should definitely not be considered as part of the solution here, science is clear about this.

In LULUCF, the co-legislators agreed to give guidance to the European Commission in this respect: the Commission is asked to report back to the Council and European Parliament six months after the entry into force of the certification of carbon removals regulation.

It will report on the possible benefits and trade-offs of the inclusion of sustainably sourced long-lived carbon storage products.

The report must assess how to consider direct and indirect emissions and removals of greenhouse gasses related to these products, such as those resulting from land use change and consequent risks of leakage of related emissions, as well as possible benefits and trade-offs with other Union environmental objectives, in particular biodiversity objectives.

Source : Euractiv