Climate protection in the EU: rules for agriculture and forestry

Natural landscapes have a considerable influence on atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and therefore on the global climate. Plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into energy for growth. This means that there is always a “store” of carbon dioxide in vegetation, known as a carbon sink. When this plant material dies and decays or is harvested or burned, it becomes a carbon source: the carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere.

Human intervention in natural processes – in the form of agriculture and forestry, for example – therefore leaves a carbon footprint. According to figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), land use accounts for more than 17 per cent of the world’s human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. In the EU, by contrast, land use absorbs 8 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions and thus acts as a carbon sink.

Forests, including the tropical rainforests, and wetlands play a vital role in protecting the climate. Land-use changes, or measures to prevent them, are therefore key building blocks of an effective climate policy in many regions of the world.

International rules for climate policy in land use

Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector is divided into six land-use types: Forest Land, Cropland, Grassland, Wetlands, Settlements, and Other Land. Emissions from livestock husbandry and fertiliser use are included in carbon accounting for agriculture.

Each year, the developed countries are required to inventorise their emissions from agriculture and forestry, as well as the amount of carbon stored in biomass and soils. The IPCC has produced Guidelines for these National Greenhouse Gas Inventories in which it defines the methodology to be used. Expert reviews are conducted to verify that the Guidelines have been correctly applied.

Comparability of greenhouse gas emissions

For this purpose, so-called accounting rules were developed under the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2020. The EU has set its own rules for the period thereafter. All accounting rules have in common that the countries report their emissions in a common way and compare them with a reference level as a benchmark.

The reference level may be based on a historical figure (e.g. emissions for 2005-2008); this is the approach adopted for cropland and grassland. For calculating emissions and removals from forests, the amount of carbon dioxide that forests would store if there were no change in management regime is estimated as the baseline. This figure is then compared with the actual trend.

Credits accrued by a country in the land-use sector may, to some extent, count towards missed mitigation targets in other sectors, such as transport and agriculture.

The study “EU LULUCF regulation explained – summary of core provisions and expected effects“ explains the central accounting rules of the Regulation and assesses to what extent the act can be expected to increase incentives for improving land management.

Forest conservation in the countries of the Global South

These review procedures currently only apply to the developed countries. However, the emissions from deforestation and overexploitation of forests, especially in tropical regions, play a very significant role in global warming.

Since 2005, various programmes have been launched within the international climate process to provide developing countries with performance-based payments for the conservation of forests and carbon sinks. The programmes have undergone various phases of renegotiation and refinement; for example, they initially covered deforestation only, but countries can now claim for afforestation projects and sustainable forest management as well.

Study: Independent monitoring – building trust and consensus

The methodology for calculating greenhouse gas emissions avoided through forest conservation, and therefore the payments to be made by the developed countries, is often a contentious issue. On behalf of the European Commission, the Oeko-Institut carried out a research study to identify calculation methods that are as independent and transparent as possible.

The reliability of the statistics depends on transparency, accuracy, completeness, comparability and consistency in data-gathering. Some stakeholders are calling for independent monitoring as a source of transparent and unbiased information. Several data sources and web-based tools with an appropriate level of ambition are now in existence, including Global Forest Watch and OpenForis.

Which elements are required for transparent monitoring?

Trust is built as the process itself evolves, and best practice examples are helpful here. In four case studies, the researchers looked at possible pathways for transparent monitoring. Various challenges were identified, which include not only gaps in existing datasets but also the lack of guidance on the correct use and interpretation of data.

Transparent monitoring is reliant on support from various stakeholder groups. Data providers, such as the European Space Agency (ESA), play an important role here, along with scientists who analyse the data. The climate negotiations are also significant in developing good practice guidance.

Study: “Independent Monitoring – Building trust and consensus around GHG data for increased accountability of mitigation in the land use sector: final report”

Project: Advising on EU policy-making

The German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) leads on the negotiation of EU rules for land use, land-use change and forestry. The land-use sector (LULUCF) is not covered by EU emissions trading but counts towards the fulfilment of climate targets.

The LULUCF sector is governed by the LULUCF Regulation, one of three pillars of EU climate policy, the others being the EU Emissions Trading System for industry and energy generation, and the Effort Sharing Decision, which establishes binding national targets for the transport, buildings and agriculture sectors.

Reliable statistics for policy-making

The Oeko-Institut provides advice to the BMU and other institutions in the form of research papers which offer facts, figures and analysis. For example, it assesses individual member states’ proposals in order to determine their potential contribution to reducing carbon emissions, how these proposals are likely to impact on the environment, and to what extent they create advantages or disadvantages for other member states.

Furthermore, on behalf of the BMU, the Oeko-Institut develops proposals showing how Germany can meet its climate targets in the agriculture and forestry sector. Here too, the climate change mitigation impacts of the various measures are calculated and presented in order to establish a sound basis for decision-making.

Not all of these research papers are available to the public. Some are solely intended for internal use and provide a source of scientific information for experts involved in policy-making.

“Impacts on the EU 2030 climate target of including LULUCF in the climate and energy policy framework”: report by the Oeko-Institut