A response and set of alternative proposals to land use in the EU

This post is a copy of a response by Dr Tim Cadman, Research Fellow of the Law Futures Centre, to the European Union’s land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) review of rules.

The European Commission sought to gather inputs from a broad range of stakeholders, namely national and sub-national administrations in the EU, businesses, trade associations, non-governmental organisations, citizens, workers associations and trade unions, consultancies, think tanks, research and academic institutions.

Feedback closed in February 2021.

Among the following drivers behind the decline of the land-based net carbon sink, which are the most important in your view? 

Please rate from 5 (most important) to 1 (least important).

  • Natural disturbances (weather events, fires, pest outbreaks…) that are caused or accelerated by climate change
  • Unsustainable land management practices impacting carbon stocks and sinks       
  • Increase in wood harvests
  • Slowdown in forest growth due to their age
  • Slowdown in afforestation and reforestation activities
  • Conversion of carbon-rich land (deforestation, draining of wetland or peatland), land take and soil sealing (expansion of built-up and artificial areas
  • Use of biomass for bio-energy instead of long-lived products
  • Other…

Other: Loopholes under the old Kyoto protocol, and equating ‘like with like’ after land use change.

A field of corn is NOT a forest, and does not have the same structure and function in regulating climate.

Europe must stop seeing forests as ‘crops’: whatever the historical reasons for the drastic simplification of Europe’s forests, they are now a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, not a sink.

Land managers are encouraged to simplify them, through forestry for bio-energy, wood-production, conversion to tree cropping and plantations.

This is completely the wrong approach to land use, land use change, and forestry.

Forests must be taken out of the LULUCF equation, and restored. Wood production should be only on previously cleared land, as an actual (clearly defined) cultivated crop, like any other.

The confusion at the moment is harming forests, and encouraging other developing countries to turn their own forests into a version of Germany, Finland, etc.

Among these potential EU policy approaches to promote climate change mitigation in land-related sectors, which do you think are the most relevant to achieve a higher climate ambition in 2030? 

  • EU sets national targets which Member States can achieve in different ways (e.g. Common Agricultural Policy, national forest policies, other national policies)           
  • An improved EU framework on monitoring, reporting and verifying emissions and removals
  • Reinforce the creation of relevant EU datasets (e.g. dedicated Copernicus service)
  • EU labels for climate-neutral products or climate footprints
  • EU taxes or subsidies
  • EU market-based policies (e.g. the use of emissions trading for land-related sectors)
  • EU policies to promote more sustainable and healthier diets
  • Other…

Other: This is completely the wrong kind of thinking.

The EU mentality is to look at land as a place for economic production.

It’s not. It’s a place where nature prevails. The natural world is essential to planetary survival, and regulating climate change.

At the moment rampant development of all varieties (mining, agriculture, urban expansion) are eroding Europe’s natural capital.

The best way to mitigate climate change in the EU is to stop managing forests, let them expand and regrow.

Natural ecosystems such as wetlands must be protected, and there should be no further human encroachment into the natural world.

Cities should be greened, to reduce their emissions of heat and gasses, public transport should be mandated, and the urban environment used for the cultivation of food and fibre.

This is all possible; there just has to be the political will. The people will not follow if the leaders do not lead.

An important function of the land is to supply bio-based and renewable materials (wood, ligno-cellulosic products, bio-plastics, bio-chemicals, etc…) that can substitute fossil-based and non-renewable materials. In addition, the LULUCF rules recognise long-lived wood products (e.g. those used in the construction sector) as a form of temporary carbon storage. What is the best policy approach to harness this substitution effect and carbon storage potential? 

  • Promote carbon storage in wood products via a modification of the LULUCF rules
  • Promote carbon storage in wood products via carbon farming approaches (e.g. using wood products in the construction sector leads to issuing carbon credits that can be sold on voluntary carbon markets)
  • Promote carbon storage in wood products via tax incentives or financial support
  • Support for research and innovation into more sustainable production of woody biomass and more sustainable use of wood-based materials, products and by-products
  • Training (e.g. for land managers, engineers, architects) and awareness raising
  • Other…

Other: The land is not a mine for products to be turned into things to the role that simply allowing natural processes to function effectively will do.

You cannot ‘store’ carbon in wood, or plastics. Eventually they break down and become atmospheric pollutants. The only way to ‘store’ carbon is to main natural ecosystem structure and function.

Forests function perfectly well as atmospheric regulators if they are left alone to achieve their true ecological productivity.

There is more carbon in an ancient forest than any other kind, by orders of magnitude.

Consequently, restoring Europe’s natural environment and its biodiversity will combat climate change.

Therefore, and land use activity around production and consumption for human needs should take place within the urban context; not the land, not the waters. There is plenty of room, only the thinking is missing, because the policy settings are the wrong way round.

In which areas should the EU focus efforts to enhance carbon sinks and protect carbon stocks? 

  • Afforestation, reforestation, forest restoration
  • Agro-ecology and agro-forestry
  • Bioenergy coupled with carbon capture and storage (BECCS)
  • Soil carbon increase in agricultural lands
  • Protection and restoration of wetland and peatland ecosystems
  • Grassland management
  • Carbon storage in long-lived wood-based materials and products
  • Other…

Other: Bio-energy carbon capture and storage epitomises the muddle-headed thinking that seeks to ‘develop’ its way out of a problem created by excessive production and consumption.

One of the original proponents in the early 2000s has subsequently claimed it was envisioned only as a backstop under an extreme climate scenario should ambitious emissions reductions prove unfeasible, in the context of commensurate broad-scale forest restoration and replanting, and as a risk management option – not as a regular emissions reduction pathway (Hickman, 2016).  Biomass energy was wrongly promoted as an emissions-reducing technology by the IPCC in 2005, and incorrectly sponsored by the European Union in the Renewable Energy Directive (RED).

The result is a policy environment in which forests have become the crucible for conflicting management imperatives of bioenergy creation, climate change mitigation and sustainability (Lindstad et al., 2015; Torvanger, 2019).

How should more ambitious climate action in land-related sectors be financed?

  • Subsidies (e.g. Common Agricultural Policy or national policies)
  • Higher product prices (e.g. via label mechanisms that allow producers to set a higher price)
  • A dedicated EU or national fund
  • Revenues from selling land-based carbon credits
  • Other…

Other: None of these approaches will work, because the fundamental premiss is that the land should be used for producing commodities.

It is the production of commodities that has got us into the situation we are now in: more manufactured materials than total planetary biomass (Elhacham et al, 2020), and humans 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals (Bar-On et al 2018). All public finance and fiscal instruments should be geared to resource recovery from land fill, urban self-sufficiency (energy, food, fibre, water), supporting land managers to revert lands and waters to natural ecosystem structure and function, and education and training for national populations to commence The Great Restoration.

Any more subsidies, products, funds or credits that encourage production (e.g carbon offsets from monocultures) should be abandoned. These have done more harm than good, and resulted in perverse incentives like biomass energy (e.g. Drax) which is deforesting the southern US states.

Part II: Overall policy approach

Which is your preferred policy approach to revise the LULUCF Regulation in view of the increased 2030 climate ambition? 

  • Strengthen the current LULUCF Regulation and increase its ambition in line with the 2030 Climate Target Plan.
  • Strengthen the flexibility with the Effort Sharing Regulation.
  • Combine the emissions from agriculture and LULUCF sectors into a single climate policy pillar with a separate target.
  • Other…

Other: 1) Go back to the climate negotiations and negotiate an end to LULUCF, which was only ever designed to allow the continuation of unsustainable commodity production when the evidence was clear that consumption reduction is the only way to avoid damaging greenhouse gas emissions.

2) Remove forests from this equation. They cannot be equated like for like with agricultural commodities.

3) Focus ambition on restoring the natural world, which is the only method that can safely reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

4) Abandon all ideas of ‘climate engineering’ before they become entrenched, and thereby lock humanity into ‘techno fixes’ that encourage business as usual, such as BECCS, and negative emissions technologies including carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management.

5) Develop a truly effective and implementable deep decarbonisation pathway for the EU, including all fossil fuel subsidies.

6) Invest in renewable energy technologies from recovered materials. That’s ambition.

Part III: Setting more ambitious rules for the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry sector

The land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) Regulation sets out rules to ensure that only human-induced changes in the net carbon sink are taken into account in the achievement of climate targets (so-called ‘accounting rules’).

For instance, the rule for existing forests (which are by far the largest component of the LULUCF sector) is to only take into account changes in the net carbon sink with respect to the sink that would have occurred under the continuation of past management practices; this baseline is called a Forest Reference Level.

If, after the application of these rules, the net sink is larger than in the accounting baseline, Member States generate credits which can be used to achieve national emission reduction targets under the Effort Sharing Regulation (ESR); if, instead, it is smaller, Member States generate debits.

Member States have committed, under the current legislation, to not creating any debits (“no-debit rule”) – if they do, the other ESR sectors must make a bigger climate effort to compensate for these debits and achieve the national climate targets.

This approach is now being reviewed to make it fit for the higher 2030 climate target of at least -55% and a climate neutral EU in 2050.

In your opinion, should there be more stringent targets for the LULUCF sector? 

  • Yes, there should be more stringent targets than the current “no-debit” rule
  • No, continue with the current no-debit rule
  • Other…

Other:  Again, the wrong question. There should only be climate mitigation activities in the land sector. The EU needs to restore the land, and stop confusing post-war ‘afforestation’ with restoration.

Although Europe’s forest cover has increased since 1900, much of these forests have become commercial forests for wood production, and there is a confusion between natural forests (which contribute to global ecosystem structures and functions for climate regulation and other services) and plantations (which are crops, for commodities).

The two are not the same. Consequently, all previous forest areas, pre-industrial revolution, need to be restored.

This applies for wetlands, and other land and water-systems. If the EU continues current agricultural technologies it will push the land to exhaustion, and will not be able to meet its targets. Abandon the LULUCF sector.

We live in a post-industrial age: remediate abandoned factories; produce sustainable commodities in the urban context.

In case there would be national targets for the LULUCF sector, what criterion should these targets be based on? 

  • The Member State’s wealth (GDP per capita)
  • The Member State’s potential to increase the net sink in a cost-efficient way
  • A percentage increase compared to the Member State’s past net sink
  • A percentage increase compared to the Member State’s net sink in a baseline that is specific to each land use category (historic baseline for agricultural land, the Forest Reference Level for existing forests)
  • The Member State’s share of agricultural land, forest land and wetland
  • Other…

Other: The only target for the land use sector should be its removal, and the deep decarbonisation of commodity production.

Reference levels should be based on how much land has been converted to non-natural purposes, and restoring the original landscape to those levels.

The EU should adopt a target that is below zero emissions, and where urban lands have encroached into natural systems, those areas should engage in carbon-negative production systems to take account of the initial loss of climate-mitigating ecosystem structure and function, subsequent industrial emissions, and post-industrial emissions.

Historical cultural sites of agricultural production should be retained as World heritage properties, or similar, and be carbon-negative.

This is not about member states’ capacities, or interests, it’s about the survival of the EU (and humanity) as a functioning polity in the context of planetary thresholds and climatic tipping points: we have reached the point of no return.

The future is now.

In the current LULUCF Regulation, emissions and removals from existing forests are compared to a Forest Reference Level. The concept of reference levels was chosen to ensure a smooth transition from a similar concept under the Kyoto Protocol. Should the EU continue with the reference level concept?

  • Yes, continue to compare the net sink from existing forests to a Forest Reference Level which is based on the continuation of past management practices
  • Yes, continue to use Forest Reference Levels, but harmonise the methodology to establish them across Member States
  • No, compare the net sink in existing forests to a historic baseline (“net-net” accounting); such a baseline corresponds to a larger sink than the Forest Reference Level.
  • No, take into account the entire net sink in existing forests, without comparing it to any baseline (“gross-net” accounting)
  • Other…

Among these options to reinforce the LULUCF monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) rules, which are your preferred ones?

  • Use more precise emission factors or emission modelling (i.e. tier 2 or tier 3)
  • Use high resolution and wall-to-wall satellite imagery to identify where land use change happens
  • Make the uptake of up-to-date data and advanced reporting methodologies a precondition for flexibilities with other sectors
  • Introduce new requirements to report estimates for all carbon pools and greenhouse gases
  • Reinforce biodiversity, ecosystem and adaptation considerations into the reporting requirements
  • Other…

Other: None. LULUCF must be abandoned; if it is not the planet will be locked into a perpetual cycle of continual emissions from the land sector (until the climate system collapses), rather than the natural carbon neutral cycles implicit in natural ecosystems.

LULUCF has resulted in countries engaging in ‘smoke and mirrors’ accounting by assuming forestry is carbon neutral (‘the trees regrow’), when it is always carbon negative (unless the forest is allowed to return to its primary, natural state, and maintained as such).

By removing commodity production from the land, and undertaking production in the urban context (where there is plenty of space, person power, infrastructure, and capacity to do so) there will be no need land -sector MRV, only accounting of natural carbon cycles.

Part IV: Links between land use and agriculture

EU climate policy covers emissions from agricultural land use under the LULUCF Regulation, and methane and nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural activities under the Effort Sharing Regulation. There is some flexibility between these two Regulations: if a Member State generates LULUCF credits, they can use them to achieve their Effort Sharing target.

The Commission estimates that the agriculture, forestry and other land use sectors, taken together (referred to as “AFOLU” in the technical jargon, and as “the land sector” in the following), could achieve climate neutrality already in 2035.

The de facto very close link between agriculture activities and land use is sometimes used as an argument for integrating them more strongly in the climate policy architecture. Conversely, other stakeholders may consider that it is necessary to maintain a separation between emissions from agriculture and removals from the land sector.

How should the architecture of EU climate policy be designed when it comes to agriculture and land use?

  • Continue to include agricultural non-CO2 emissions under the Effort Sharing Regulation; continue to allow for the use of LULUCF credits in the Effort Sharing Regulation up to the current limit.
  • Continue to include agricultural non-CO2 emissions under the Effort Sharing Regulation; increase the possibility to use LULUCF credits in the Effort Sharing Regulation, independent of a change to Effort Sharing Regulation target levels.
  • Continue to include non-CO2 agricultural emissions under the Effort Sharing Regulation; increase the possibility to use LULUCF credits in the Effort Sharing Regulation, but only in case Effort Sharing Regulation targets are increased.
  • Create a new policy strand, which covers agricultural non-CO2 and land use emissions together.
  • Other…

Other: This is precisely why the EU (and the climate negotiations) around land are in such a mess.

Industrial agricultural commodity production generates emissions, from the activity itself (soil disturbance), and inputs (fertilisers, fossil fuels). The act of clearing land, historically, and currently, for commodity production (from fields of wheat to solar farms) also generated, and generate, emissions.

Trying to account for this, instead of accepting the modern farming practices are inherently unsustainable and together with forestry account for 20% of global emissions, is futile.

These accounting methods lock in anthropogenic land use change, instead of encouraging restoration.

There seems to be a belief that humans can keep what they are doing to the land (only better, usually understood as more efficiently), and no alternative.

There is. The majority of humans now live in cities. These areas can, must, and will, ultimately, become the main locality for production. Or we’re gone.

In case there were to be a single policy strand covering emissions from the land sector (agriculture, forestry and other land use), should there then be a specific target for this sector?

  • Yes, there should be an EU-wide target, and then Member States should be required to ‘pledge’ their contribution to this target
  • X Yes, there should be legally-binding national targets
  • No
  • Other…

In case there were to be national targets for the land sector (agriculture, forestry and other land use), what criterion should these targets be based on? 

  • The importance of land-related activities in the Member State’s economy
  • The Member State’s potential to achieve climate neutrality in the EU land sector in a cost-efficient way
  • A percentage increase compared to the Member State’s past emissions and removals from the land sector
  • The Member State’s share of agricultural land, forest land and wetland
  • Other…

Other: Member state’s share of agricultural land, forest land and wetland by area cleared, and amount in need of restoration, less land lost to urban settlement, which is compensated by negative-zero carbon reducing technologies for commodity production, transport and other infrastructure within those urban areas.