The Wretched LULUCF

I abstained on the vote in Plenary on LULUCF as I felt the proposal was not facing up to the reality of climate change.

Three big issues,

“Gross net accounting”

Setting “Forest reference levels”

The “displacement effect”.

Wood for energy often has a positive image: a natural product of growing forests. The biomass energy industry, which has grown rapidly on the back of government subsidies, likes to contrast it with dirty coal or oil. They point to the government’s sustainability criteria, which notionally guarantee a reduction of at least 60 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions compared to the fossil fuels the biomass replaces.

The problem with this happy picture, however, is that in fact biomass, when burnt, emits more carbon per unit of energy than most fossil fuels. The exact amount varies with the type of biomass and the type and age of the power plant, but figures from the Drax power station, Europe’s largest consumer of wood pellets, show that in 2013 it emitted about 13 per cent more carbon dioxide per unit of energy generated from biomass than from coal.

How is this consistent with meeting the government’s requirement for a 60 per cent reduction in emissions? Only by completely ignoring the carbon emitted when the wood is burnt; the sustainability criteria measure only supply-chain emissions from harvesting, processing and transporting the wood. (Direct land-use change – for example, clearance of the forest for agriculture or urban development – also falls outside the criteria, but biomass for energy generally originates from existing forests.)

This treatment of combustion emissions as zero – and thus, the awarding to wood the same kind of financial and regulatory support as other renewables such as solar PV and wind – is justified on the basis that the carbon contained in woody biomass is part of the natural forest cycle. The carbon released during combustion was absorbed by forest growth in the past and will be reabsorbed by forest growth in the future; in contrast, fossil fuels originate outside this cycle and their combustion adds carbon to the atmosphere.

But this argument rests on a basic fallacy. Carbon is carbon, wherever it comes from, and if you burn wood for energy, you increase carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere (by more than if you had used fossil fuels), and thereby contribute to climate change. The fact that the carbon emitted was absorbed by growing trees in the past is simply irrelevant. After all, when it’s harvested you don’t have to burn it; you could use it for construction or furniture or window frames or a host of other uses, fixing the carbon in wood products rather than emitting it to the atmosphere.

Climate impacts

It is true that continued forest growth will absorb carbon in the future, but the process is a long one, taking decades or even centuries if whole trees are harvested and burnt. Replacing large mature trees, with plentiful leaf cover absorbing large volumes of carbon dioxide, with small young ones mean that the rate of carbon uptake will be far lower for years. On top of that, the impact of harvesting itself releases soil carbon into the atmosphere, further accelerating climate change.

Gross-net accounting: Afforestation, reforestation and deforestation

In the EU, the carbon removals from planting trees (afforestation measures) are not compared to a base year. Gross-net accounting credits all the carbon removals of trees planted since 1990. This means that countries can get credits for forests that were planted over 25 years ago. What is not counted is how the size of the forest sink compares to the historical sink.

As the majority of states are almost guaranteed to produce a sink, they will thus be credited for the totality of the carbon absorbed by forests, instead of comparing the size of their forest sink to the size of the sink in 1990. States could be heavily credited, while the overall size of the sink, and the benefit to the climate, has declined.

Reference levels: Forest management

Forest management is currently accounted for by comparing the real emissions of forests with an estimated baseline, so called forest management reference levels (FMRL). Under the FMRL, countries project the future emissions of their forests based on its age and on future harvesting rates. The flaw in this method is that the reference level can be overestimated.

Credits can be obtained by emitting less than the projected harvesting rates. This potentially allows Members States to hide emissions by assuming exaggerated harvests in their reference level (easily justified by the increasing demand in the EU for bioenergy), continue business-as-usual harvests and consequently profit from unearned credits underneath it.

But what do gross-net, net-net and forest reference levels mean

Here a simple example: Country A has a sink of 10 MT CO2 in 1990 and 13 MT CO2 in 2012. It projected that in 2012, it would have a reduced sink of 8 MT CO2.

  • Under net-net accounting, it would account for the difference between 1990 and 2012, i.e. 3 MT CO2 of removals.

  • Under gross-net accounting it would calculate the size of the sink in the year accounting takes place but not compare it to a base year. It would account for 13 MT CO2 of removals in 2012.

  • Using a business as usual reference level, it would account for 5 MT CO2 removals, since the sink in 2012 was 5 MT CO2 larger than the country projected it would be.

The Displacement effect

In addition what is not accounted for or mentioned at any level is what could be called the displacement effect.

An example;

A farmers plants 100 acres of prime pasture land with trees as a result of Govt policy to increase forest cover to offset GHG emissions from other sectors in agriculture.

This is good quality grassland currently sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, locking in the roots of the grass and in its mineral soil.

The trees are planted and sequester carbon as they grow over a 25-30 year period.

They are harvested, processed into pellets, burnt and the carbon within them is instantly released into the atmosphere.

Under the current regime these emissions are not counted, there are many studies to show this is a fallacy, it is not necessary to go over them again.

What is still not recognized or accounted for anywhere however, is that at the start we had 100 acres of pasture sequestering carbon which is now lost and the carbon emissions from the crop this land produced are now counted as zero.

Finally there is more to consider that just emissions!!

Forests, wetlands and grasslands have important biodiversity functions and social value. It is acknowledged that climate efforts that only tackle emissions may have harmful side effects in terms of the land’s resilience, food sovereignty or farmer benefits. Land remains our source of food, renewable energy, and recreation. While it is important to account for GHG emissions, climate actions regarding land use must take into account more variables than just carbon reductions, such as environmental and social criteria.

Paul Cotter