Environmental campaign groups denounced the EU Commission’s plan to include carbon sinks in the EU’s climate target, saying this was “an accounting trick” to meet the 2030 goals.
The European Commission on Thursday defended its plan to bring carbon removals from agriculture, land use and forestry into the EU’s updated climate target for 2030, saying this was in line with UNFCCC standards.
“If you look at the logic and the methods applied by UNFCCC, they all include carbon sinks,” said Frans Timmermans, the Commission vice-president in charge of climate policy.
“This is exactly what we have done at the European Commission,” he told journalists at a press briefing. “So I think we’re on solid ground here”.
Timmermans was speaking after the EU executive officially unveiled its plan to reduce the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, up from 40% currently.
The updated 2030 target, announced the day before by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, aims to put the EU in line with its commitments under the Paris Agreement and the bloc’s broader objective of becoming the first “climate neutral” continent in the world by 2050.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced plans on Wednesday (16 September) to target a 55% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 as part of a broader European Green Deal programme aimed at reaching “climate neutrality” by mid-century.
But environmental campaign groups denounced the Commission’s plan to include carbon sinks in the target, saying this was “an accounting trick” to meet the 2030 goals.
“Relying on forests to reach climate targets sends the wrong signal that it’s OK to keep polluting because the land will absorb it,” said Sam van den Plas, policy director at Carbon Market Watch, an environmental NGO.
“The Commission is greenwashing its own climate target: including carbon dioxide removals in the calculations means emissions will actually go down by a lot less. We’re facing a climate emergency, and there isn’t time for games,” said Alex Mason from the WWF.
In Europe, forests are currently a net carbon sink because they take in more carbon dioxide than they emit. On a global level, oceans and forests are the two biggest carbon sinks.
But the capacity of European forests to absorb CO2 “has been shrinking” over the years, Timmermans warned, saying “the sink has to go back to its previous levels” if Europe wants to reach climate neutrality and preserve biodiversity at the same time.
If left unchecked, forest sinks could further decline to 225 million tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030, down from 300 million tons CO2 in 2010, the Commission says. According to the EU executive, the forests’ declining capacity to absorb carbon dioxide is driven by “further increases in harvesting” and negative impacts from natural hazards such as fires and pests caused by a changing climate and growing demand for biomass.
“We really have to take care of our forests. It’s not enough to say we’ll plant 3 billion trees, we need to make sure our forests stay healthy and this is going to be a momentous task,” Timmermans said.
Environmental groups applauded the Commission’s intention to restore healthy forests and ecosystems. But they pointed to inconsistencies with the EU’s existing climate goal for 2030, which according to them, does not take carbon removals into account.
“The current EU target of ‘at least 40%’ agreed in 2014 does not include sinks,” affirms Bert Metz, a climate scientist who co-chaired the mitigation working group of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 1997 to 2008.
“Including sinks means that the new 55% target would effectively be less than 50% in the current target’s terms,” he wrote in an opinion piece for EURACTIV.