We are doing science for policy
The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission's science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy.
On 18 June 2019, the Commission published its assessment of Member States' draft plans to implement the EU's Energy Union objectives, in particular the agreed EU 2030 energy and climate targets, as well as technical recommendations on Member States' National Forestry Accounting Plans.
These plans contain a proposed "Forest Reference Levels", which act as a baseline for future greenhouse gas emissions and removals from managed forest land.
The JRC played a key role in the development of this concept, which allows assessing the greenhouse gas impact of human action in the forestry sector.
The EU has set a target for reducing its anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 40% by 2030 relative to 1990.
As explained by Giacomo Grassi, the JRC's expert on measuring the climate impact of forest management, "it is rather straightforward to measure the impacts of human activities on emissions from, for instance, the energy sector: all emissions are anthropogenic and any reduction of emissions can be claimed as anthropogenic. But in the forestry sector this becomes more challenging".
Forest trees absorb CO2 through photosynthesis, and therefore mitigate climate change. In the EU, for example, forests offset nearly 10% of total EU GHG emissions.
However, to give the right policy incentives for enhancing our carbon sinks, we need to identify how much of this absorption is due to recent forest management decisions.
"If you plant a tree, continues Giacomo, this is clearly a result of recent human action. However, the CO2 absorption in the majority of existing EU forests is largely affected by natural factors or by management choices done a long time ago, e.g. when your grand-grandfather planted a tree".
Measuring how much of the current CO2 absorption by forests is due to ongoing human activities has therefore long been a demanding task.
A JRC-led group of forest experts has developed a new science-based approach to assess the greenhouse gas impact of human action in the forestry sector.
This approach is based on country-specific projected baselines which will be used to measure the GHG impact of future forest activities.
"In other words, says Giacomo, each country calculates how much CO2 would be absorbed by its forests without changing the current management. This sets the baseline, called Forest Reference Level".
This approach ensures greater environmental integrity and comparability of mitigation efforts across sectors of the economy.
At the same time, it allows to reflect the country-specific forest dynamics, for example if a forest on average is getting older.
This approach was included in the EU Regulation from 2018 incorporating the forest sector in the EU 2030 climate targets.
As required by this Regulation, the EU Member States propose their Forest Reference Levels for the period 2021-2025.
An expert group composed of Member States representatives, technical specialists, NGOs and research organisations was formed to undertake a technical assessment of the plans and the proposed forest reference level.
The JRC played a very active role in facilitating this technical assessment.
The Commission has now issued technical recommendations reflecting the conclusions of the assessment process.
These technical recommendations will form the basis for the revision of Member States’ forest reference levels, which are to be submitted by 31 December 2019.
The Commission will then adopt delegated acts containing the final forest reference levels for the period 2021 and 2025 by 31 October 2020.