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Forests and Agriculture

Terrestrial ecosystems (forests and crops but also grasslands, wetlands and mangroves) are critical to climate change mitigation and adaptation.


Deforestation is 70-80% driven by the conversion to agriculture in order to provide larger amounts of fuel, food and fibres to a bio-economy that is expanding even faster than global consumption (as it also increasingly substitutes less renewable sources of energy and raw materials, e.g. for bioenergy and bio-chemicals). All though EU forest area keeps increasing, globally deforestation continues to be unabated, only shifting from Amazon to Indonesia, from Russia to Congo, etc. Population being forecast to grow by 1bn in 2030, 2bn in 2050 and 5 bn by 2100, FAO expects land productivity to increase by a steady 1.5-2% a year over this century, either by intensification (higher yields per hectare) or expansion (more hectares under production, be it forests or degraded areas), despite unprecedented climate extremes and roughly a quarter of the world’s agricultural land being severely degraded already. Global anthropogenic GHG emissions amount to +/- 50 gigatons (Gt) of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2e) in 2010, 12 of which come from agriculture and forests. Current global mitigation actions still leave us with an annual emissions gap of 8-12 GtCO2e by 2020, which means that we are still producing more GHG than what would be required to prevent global temperature from increasing more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Mitigation and adaptation in the land sector could abate between 4 and 10 Gt CO2e per year in 2030, with an expectation of 7 Gt CO2e, i.e. 70% of our short medium mitigation potential.

Both EU internal and international frameworks provide for the regulation of these sectors in terms of climate change.

Removal, emission and storage

Giant redwood trees, Felton, California - Photographer: Jupiterimages © Getty Images

In relation to climate change, forestry and agriculture are 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 as much as 100 million cars.

International Frameworks

For industrialised nations, accounting of emissions and removals from forests and agriculture are governed by the  Kyoto Protocolpdf(77 kB) Choose translations of the previous link  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 is covered in the framework called REDD+ - the UN programme for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

LULUCF in the EU

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.


Though emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries remain difficult to quantify, they constitute for around one sixth of the 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 materialized depends on providing a sound legal framework, predictable incentives, and proportionate resources that are used in a cost-effective manner.

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