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Key role of forests in meeting climate targets

Forests are expected to contribute to 25% of the national mitigation pledges under the Paris Agreement
Feb 27 2017

Forests play a key role in meeting the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement. They cover around 25% of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions planned by countries for 2030 in response to the Paris Agreement. In an article published in Nature Climate Change "The key role of forests in meeting climate targets requires science for credible mitigation", JRC scientists call for robust, transparent and credible data to track the real mitigation potential of forests, and highlight the important role of the scientific community in this process.

In December 2015, 195 countries adopted the Paris Climate Agreement at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As part of the process, 187 countries – representing more than 96% of global net emissions – submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which form the basis for implementing GHG mitigation actions under the climate agreement.

Lack of harmonised methods to assess forest mitigation

The management of forests can contribute to climate change mitigation by conserving and enhancing the carbon dioxide (CO2) absorption capacity of forests and by reducing GHG emissions from deforestation. However, in past UNFCCC negotiations, the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) sector has often been treated as a separate and less promoted way of reducing net GHG emissions, largely due to its complexity and a lack of trust in data.

The Paris Agreement is a game changer for LULUCF. Most INDCs already include LULUCF in their commitments, with a clear focus on forests. Nevertheless, countries use very different ways of including the LULUCF sector in their national targets, which complicates the evaluation of its expected contribution to the INDC mitigation targets.

The first global picture of country-based LULUCF net emissions

The JRC and a team of international collaborators have carried out the most thorough quantification and interpretation yet of country mitigation plans, taking into consideration different ways of assessing GHG mitigation by the LULUCF sector. They used information and data reported by countries under the UNFCCC process, supplemented with country data reported to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and compared this with independent estimates in the scientific literature. The scientists estimated that, if the INDCs are fully implemented, the LULUCF sector would shift from being a net source of emissions (in 1990-2010) to a net absorber of CO2 by 2030.

Forests are responsible for 25% of total planned emissions reduction

The scientists observe that the LULUCF contribution to mitigation can appear to be very different depending on the way in which countries calculate that contribution and on different future scenarios.

It is clear that most countries – especially developing countries – expect the LULUCF sector to make a key contribution towards meeting their emissions reduction targets. Comparing the overall contribution of this sector with all other sectors, the scientists found that the contribution of the global LULUCF sector amounts to about 25% of the total INDC emissions reduction.

Call for greater transparency and confidence in estimates

The study stresses that the credibility of LULUCF mitigation may be hampered by big uncertainties regarding how countries consider mitigation as well as their GHG emissions estimates. For the LULUCF sector to achieve the planned mitigation targets, greater transparency and confidence is needed in how LULUCF emission estimates are made. Future updates of the national emissions reduction commitments should provide more details on how LULUCF mitigation is taken into consideration and how REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation, forest Degradation, and other forest activities) activities contribute to the pledges. To increase confidence in LULUCF estimates, the accuracy of national GHG inventories must be improved, especially in developing countries.

The report highlights this as both a challenge and an opportunity for the scientific community. The challenge stems from the need to support national GHG estimates through regular reviews of the latest science and seizing the opportunities offered by emerging observational and modelling tools. Independent checks of the transparency and accuracy of data are also required, for example, by reproducing and verifying national GHG estimates, which are key to improving scientific understanding and to building confidence in GHG estimates and their trends.

Reconciling differences between the scientific and GHG inventory community

There is also an urgent need to reconcile the differences between the GHG estimates provided in the country reports and those based on scientific assessments. There are many possible reasons for these differences, mainly linked to different perspectives and interpretations of certain concepts. Reconciling these differences will require an unprecedented effort in gaining mutual understanding and cooperation between the scientific community and the developers of national GHG inventories. This is a key opportunity for science-based support to policy. It is also a necessity, as the `Global stocktake' of progress towards achieving the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement will be based on both country reports and scientific assessments made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Without speaking the same language, conflicting numbers and messages are likely to appear in the coming years, and progress towards the "below 2°C" target cannot be properly assessed.

The international team

Giacomo Grassi and Frank Dentener, from the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission; Jo House, Bristol University; Sandro Federici, FAO consultant; Michel den Elzen, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency; Jim Penman, University College London.

Jim Penman passed away recently. Jim was the UK and EU negotiator on LULUCF for many years, coordinator of key IPCC methodological reports and credited as one of the key architects of the LULUCF process under the UNFCCC. He was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his work. He was a great source of inspiration and an outstanding scientist and negotiator, who strived towards creating a better world.