Forests and agricultural land are important to climate change mitigation. Firstly because of the significance of their carbon stock and secondly because their exchange of greenhouse gases between the atmosphere and soils and vegetation can go both ways. Many human activities such as logging, grazing of livestock or ploughing, influence the exchange of greenhouse gases with the atmosphere and ultimately the carbon footprint of the sector. Both EU internal and international frameworks provide for the regulation of these sectors in terms of climate change.
In relation to climate change, forestry and agriculture is about removals, emissions and storage. Removals result from the capacity of plants and soils to 'suck in' and retain greenhouses gases from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. Removals take place when trees grow or organic material builds up in soils. Emissions take place for instance when plants die and decay or when soils are disturbed so that their capacity to store is decreased. This would be the case when trees or crops are harvested, if wetlands are drained or if grasslands are ploughed.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) differs from the other major greenhouse gases relevant to the sector in that the carbon can be stored in large quantities in the various carbon pools in vegetation, soils and living organisms. As an illustration, it is estimated that the release of just 0.1 % of the carbon currently stored in European soils would equal the annual emissions from 100 million cars.
For industrialised nations, accounting of emissions and removals from forests and agriculture are governed by the Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997. The inclusion of forests and agriculture in greenhouse gas accounts of industrialised nations are governed by Protocol rules for the so- called LULUCF sector – land-use, land-use change and forestry.
Emissions and removals from forests and agriculture in non- industrialised countries are for the time being not governed by any internationally agreed legally binding framework. Policy development related to forests in non- industrialised countries are covered in the framework called REDD+ - the UN programme for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.
In most industrialised nations, emissions of greenhouse gases mainly come from energy production and other man-made sources. In the EU, the forest and agriculture sectors counter some of these emissions by removing an amount of carbon from the atmosphere equal to about 9 % of the EU's total greenhouse gas emissions in other sectors. A variety of different land uses and management practices can limit emissions of carbon and enhance removals from the atmosphere within forestry and agriculture.
Emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries remain difficult to quantify. They constitute around one sixth global CO2 emissions, or one eighth of all global greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time nearly one billion vulnerable people depend on these forests for food, water, shelter and energy. If designed properly, REDD+ could entail substantial benefits in addition to the mitigation. These include positive impacts on biodiversity, climate change adaptation, low emission development and strengthening indigenous peoples' rights. REDD+ therefore has the potential for a triple dividend - gains for the climate, for biodiversity and for sustainable development. How far this potential can be materialised depends on providing a legal framework, and additional and proportionate resources that are used in a cost-effective manner.