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| 06/13/18

Better carbon accounting in European forests informed by Canadian model

TCE

The EU is implementing a new carbon accounting approach for its forests that improves the scientific rigour of previous methods.

Forests will be critical in meeting emission reduction targets. Countries have long struggled with accurate assessment of the greenhouse gases emitted to or removed from the atmosphere by their forests. As a result, up to now, international rules have faced accounting challenges, with many climate actors arguing for an improved picture of how forests are affecting climate change.

So a group of forestry researchers have developed a new system of “carbon accounting” that they say is much more rigorous and which has been adopted by the European Union as the scientific basis for its overhaul of how the sector is treated in its climate strategy. If the method is adopted beyond the confines of the EU, climate policymakers around the world should have greater confidence in what is actually happening in the woods.

In any sector, carbon accounting—assessing how much progress has been made towards greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets—requires a robust “baseline” against which future emissions into the atmosphere or removals out of it can be measured. The problem in the forestry sector is that legacy effects of management or natural disturbances that occurred decades ago have affected today’s distribution of age of trees for a nation’s forests. Tree age will influence future sources and sinks as trees drawn down differing amounts of CO2 depending on how old they are.

So under the Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change the solution to this problem involved using “forest reference levels” instead of baselines, whereby accounting of emissions was compared against forward-looking projections of what was likely to happen taking into account the age-related dynamics. The problems arose when these projections also implemented anticipated changes in forest policies. The Kyoto Protocol was the first treaty that committed signatories to GHG reductions and is due to be replaced when the 2015’s Paris Agreement comes into effect in 2020.

In other words, what actually happened was compared not to the past management, but against what would otherwise have happened, or “counterfactual scenarios.” But counterfactual scenarios are controversial because they cannot be verified.

As a result of this verification problem, if a country inflated its future harvests in the reference level scenario, then this could lead to future carbon credits if the anticipated change in management practices did not occur, a sort of carbon cheating.

Conversely, some EU countries anticipated in their reference levels that harvests would increase to meet bioenergy demands. This would lead to substantial emissions in the forests, and such emissions increases were indeed reflected in the reference levels. But if these anticipated increases did not occur and emissions were smaller than projected, this would lead to a possible carbon credit.

In response to the problem, a group of scientists from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and the Canadian Forest Service have devised a new accounting approach, recently published in Carbon Balance and Management whereby such counterfactual scenarios are made more transparent and credible.

Under the new technique, reference levels instead are based not on projections of policy impacts but on the projected continuation of historic forest management practices, i.e. business as usual.

This resolves the problem because historic practices are solidly documented. These business-as-usual projections are then applied to the latest update of a computer model of carbon dynamics of forests developed by the Canadian Forest Service called the Carbon Budget Model (CBM-CFS3). The CBM estimates carbon fluxes under different forest management scenarios, using data from EU countries.

In an ongoing collaboration with the Canadian Forest Service, the Joint Research Center of the EU applied the model to estimate forest carbon budgets for 26 EU countries and to project their future dynamics. They found that emissions were smaller than projected. The EU was actually doing better with respect to the climate than had been thought.

These results have helped in the development of EU legislation that offers new opportunities for member states to use this sector to contribute to emission reduction targets.

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