EU Science Hub

Fit for purpose: new reference levels to track climate impact of EU’s forests

The EU currently holds 5 % of the world's forests and EU forests have continuously expanded for over 60 years.
The EU currently holds 5 % of the world's forests and EU forests have continuously expanded for over 60 years.
Nov 10 2020

Newly-adopted forest reference levels provide a robust benchmark to account for net carbon emissions from Europe’s forests over the next five years, according to a JRC report.

The Commission recently adopted new 'forest reference levels' that will apply in each EU country between 2021 and 2025.

The levels describe the climate impact of each country’s forestry, if forest management practices and wood use are kept similar to those in the 2000-2009 reference period.

If countries make changes to their forest management or wood use that reduce emissions or increase carbon stored in wood products compared to the forest reference level, they can offset debits of other land uses and use some of the resulting credits to compensate emissions from the agriculture, transport or buildings sectors.

Any debits – possibly resulting from cutting down more trees or burning more wood for energy compared to the forest reference level - need to be compensated through improvements in other land uses and eventually emissions reductions in other sectors, or exchanging credits from other EU countries.

To ensure that these levels are fit for purpose, the JRC and the Commission’s Directorate-General for Climate Action carried out a detailed assessment of all proposals by EU Member States and the methodological choices behind them.

The assessment finds that the forest reference levels form a good basis to assess the contribution of forests to the EU’s climate objectives. In general, countries have made considerable efforts to provide a robust benchmark for accounting the emissions and removals from managed forests.

In some cases, the proposals had to be adjusted through corrections by Member States, or recalculations by the Commission. The background for these adjustments are detailed in the report.

Minor technical corrections are recommended to ensure that the methodologies are consistent between the forest reference levels and the reporting of managed forest land in the annual greenhouse gas inventories reported by EU countries, so that future accounting will compare like with like.

The report also noted that improvements to national forestry accounting plans provide a valuable source of data, methodologies and descriptions of forest management practices, some of which was not available before.

The EU’s commitment

The land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) regulation for 2021-2030 sets a binding commitment for every EU Member State to ensure that emissions associated with the continuation of existing management practices do not increase, and to incentivise additional carbon absorption from the atmosphere – for example by planting more trees or managing forests to stimulate further tree growth.

With these new forest reference levels, changes in forest management and wood use for material and energy are now taken into account when assessing progress towards the 2030 climate targets.

The final forest reference levels for 2021-2025 represent about 18% less absorption of carbon from the atmosphere than the average in 2000-2009. This difference is the result of more forests reaching harvest maturity.

This reference level does not describe how EU countries will manage their forests. Instead, it provides a benchmark for comparing the climate impact of all changes in Member States’ forest management for the next five years.

The JRC report provides concrete information on the assumptions behind the forest reference levels for each EU country. This information is important for the development of mitigation strategies at the national scale and on the EU level.

The report also provides a thorough description of the technical achievements and challenges under the current policy, which will be useful background for further enhancing EU climate policies under the European Green Deal.