European Union member states are tussling over new rules on how carbon in the bloc’s forests will be counted, a bunfight that could have implications for Canada, where forestry plays a large role in both the economy and its climate targets.
Nations heavily dependent on forestry, including Austria, Finland, Poland and Sweden, want to harvest many more trees but without this counting towards their overall emissions.
On the face of it, they appear to have a strong case. Europe’s forests have been expanding geographically over the last hundred years. Even if the countries up their harvest, they argue that forests overall will still draw down more carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere than they release.
However, 40 prominent forestry researchers, including the head of PICS Forest Carbon Management Project, Werner Kurz, have signed an open letter warning that changes in the EU legislation governing forest carbon accounting could result in millions of tonnes of atmospheric CO2 ‘disappearing’ from Europe’s carbon accounts.
Under the Kyoto Protocol climate agreement, countries started to account for the carbon flux from forests by comparing current emission levels to a business-as-usual baseline called the ‘forest reference level’.
Finland and their allies want to include future harvest increases in the baseline, even if these increases are the consequence of policy changes and cannot be described as business-as-usual.
For example, policies aimed at increasing the use of forest biomass to replace fossil fuel emissions will require increased harvest rates. As a result, the forest sink will be reduced but the harvested biomass will be used to reduce fossil-fuel emissions. By proposing to include such harvest rate increases already in the reference level, some EU states would no longer have to account for the sink reduction because it is already in the baseline. Thus countries could achieve an accounted reduction in emissions without addressing atmospheric CO2 goals because these reduced emissions are compensated for by a reduction in the forest sink resulting from increased harvest rates.
The scientists’ concern is not the proposed increase in harvest. They believe that in most cases, this will be a good thing, as the substitution of long-lived wood products—particularly in buildings—in place of carbon-intensive materials such as steel and cement offers huge emissions mitigation potential. The problem lies in the attempt to hide the atmospheric impact of increased harvest rates by including these in what is supposed to be a business-as-usual baseline, thus ‘cheating’ on the accounted GHG balance.
In British Columbia, such a strategy of carbon storage in long-lived wood products and ‘displacement’ of emissions intensive materials is part of new climate-responsive considerations within the forestry sector, which has been tasked with delivering the lion’s share of GHG reductions in the province’s Climate Leadership Plan. Newly released modelling work by PICS-funded researchers indicate that a mix of regionally-specific forest management techniques, bioenergy and more long-lived wood products, has the potential to contribute 35 per cent of BC’s 2050 emissions reduction target—and at a cost well below $100 per tonne of carbon dioxide, while also creating 2,000 new full-time jobs. These analyses properly represent the impacts of increased harvest rates on the GHG balance.
Canadian climate negotiators will be following the discussion in Europe closely, as Ottawa has not yet decided its approach on forest carbon accounting. The European example shows that the international community is following closely whether or not decision about forest carbon accounting rules are contributing to the goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and climate change mitigation.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.