Forestry policy and climate targets

With the publication of the heads of the promised climate change bill now imminent, it is interesting to note that two Oireachtas Comittees, the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security and the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, have just published a report on the role of forests in future EU climate policy. The paper was written in the context of the Committees’ role in responding to EU proposals, in this case an EU Commission Green Paper on Protecting Forests against Climate Change.

The report raises some important issues on the treatment of carbon sequestration by forests in the context of EU climate policy, where arguably Irish interests differ from the rest of the EU. Although its conclusions need further discussion, the report is a good example of how the Oireachtas can contribute to public debate and for this reason alone it should be welcomed. For the record, Andrew Doyle T.D. (FG)  was the rapporteur for both committees and he was assisted in preparing the report by EPS Consulting (formerly A&L Goodbody Consulting).

Trees absorb CO2 when growing but release it when they are felled or burned. Steady-state forestry is broadly neutral with respect to carbon emissions; afforestation is associated with carbon sequestration (for the period until the steady-state is reached), while deforestation is associated with carbon emissions. Land use change – primarily deforestation – is estimated to have contributed around 20% of global GHG emissions between 1989 and 1998.

Kyoto Protocol rules allow CPs to count verifiable net changes in carbon stock between 1990 and the first KP commitment period (i.e. between 2008 and 2012) resulting from afforestation, reforestation and deforestation activity towards their KP commitments. The carbon sequestration resulting from Ireland’s recent afforestation (put in the report at between 1.56 to 2.39 MtCO2e currently based on 2006 figures) is estimated at 2.7 MtCO2e annually over the five-year KP commitment period in the EPA’s latest (2010) projections. To put this in perspective, projected emissions from the non-ETS sector excluding forestry for the first KP compliance period lie between 45.8 and 46.3 MtCO2e, depending on the scenario assumed. Ireland’s KP ceiling for the non-ETS sector is 40.6 MtCO2e, so forestry sequestration makes up almost half the ‘distance to target’ during this period.

Potentially, it can play an even greater role in meeting the 2013-2020 annual targets. The latest forecasts from the Environmental Protection Agency envisage that carbon sequestration could be as high as 4.8MtCO2e by 2020. However, the carbon sequestration potential of Ireland’s Kyoto‐eligible forests (i.e. those planted since 1990) is wholly dependent on the rate of afforestation (on which more below).

Also, there is uncertainty about the EU’s commitment to including LULUCF (land use, land use change and forestry) in reporting requirements after 2012.  The fall-back position is that they will not be included, but it was agreed by the EU Parliament and Council in December 2008 that, in the event that an international agreement on global reductions is not reached by the Community by 31 December 2010, Member States would be allowed to include emissions and removals from LULUCF activities towards meeting the 20% reduction target relative to 1990.

The main recommendation of the Committees is that forest carbon offset schemes should be provided for in the context of the EU’s evolving climate change strategy.  The idea behind this is that landowners would be paid for the carbon sequestration value of new forests, providing an additional income stream and encouraging a higher rate of afforestation.

In principle, it is entirely appropriate that the same carbon value should be attached to carbon sequestered as to carbon emitted. However, the Committees are somewhat coy on who would be expected to pay for these credits.

Currently, there are two markets for carbon offsets. One is industries covered by the Emissions Trading Scheme which buy offsets to comply with the caps on the total amount of carbon they are allowed to emit. The other, smaller, voluntary market is made up of individuals and companies buying offsets to mitigate their own GHG emissions.

Allowing ETS operators to buy forestry carbon offsets would have the effect of further lowering the restrictive effect of the ETS ceiling (it might also run into problems unless there is a renegotiation of the KP because currently only forest projects in developing countries give rise to eligible offsets). This would be unpopular with the Commission which sees a stable and rising carbon price as an important incentive to industries to invest in low-carbon technologies.

Importantly, it would seem to mean that these offsets would no longer be available to the Irish non-ETS sector, thus making achievement of the already tough non-ETS target in 2020 more difficult. This potential conflict is not recognised in the report.

Voluntary offset reductions can be implemented currently and do not need to wait for EU legislation. However, the number of individuals and non-ETS companies which are willing to pay to offset their carbon emissions is relatively small.

A third source of funding might be the Rural Development Pillar 2 of the CAP. This CAP pillar already funds forestry premia for farmers who undertake planting (worth between €241 and €573 per hectare for periods of between 15 and 20 years) and it would need careful analysis to show whether adding a further incentive would be economically justified.

Apart from this question of who would pay for the forest carbon offsets, a number of other issues are raised in reading the report.

The report suggests that the Commission has recommended to Member States that LULUCF activities cannot contribute to national compliance efforts under the EU’s 2020 climate change and renewable energy package. This seems to be based on a misunderstanding of the relevant Commission documentation, as what the Commission working paper (Part 2) does is simply to note that at present the targets for post-2012 do not include the possibility to account for absorptions or emissions from LULUCF activities and therefore cannot contribute to the compliance under the climate and energy package. However, it goes on to note that LULUCF can be included in the future reduction effort provided that the permanence and the environmental integrity is ensured. To me, this does not read like a recommendation that LULUCF cannot be taken into account under any circumstances.

However, it is true that, for the same reason why the Committee argues for the inclusion of LULUCF in EU inventories (that it would make it easier for countries like Ireland to meet their targets), the Commission argues that their inclusion would significantly weaken the level of ambition of a post-Kyoto agreement, particularly if the somewhat lax KP rules were applied. As the EPA warned in their 2010 projections:  “It is not yet clear how the inclusion of carbon sinks would impact on Ireland’s 2020 target and whether including their impact would mean a stricter limit for Ireland.” This issue was also not addressed in the Committees’ report when advocating the inclusion of LULUCF.

The Committees were aware that the rate of afforestation has slowed down significantly in recent years. Forestry is not commercially viable without the forestry premium paid to farmers, but the largest forest manager, Coillte, is not eligible for the forest premium and has thus ceased new planting. There is thus a danger that what might initially appear as a lucrative income stream could become a negative liability after 2020 if forest offtake began to exceed new planting. On the other hand, a carbon offset payment would in itself help to maintain if not increase the rate of planting, thus postponing the day when LULUCF net emissions might become negative.

Despite these caveats, this report is a useful contribution to formulating the Irish position on future changes to EU climate policy and should be welcomed.

13 thoughts on “Forestry policy and climate targets”

  1. EWI

    After you thanks.

    I thought the idea was to grow wood and buren it because it’s carbon neutral.

    Enjoy the flames.

  2. It is a positive sign that Irish policy makers are actively seeking to influence EU climate policy instead of being taken by surprise by the diktat from Brussels.

    In this case, the recommendation is not only in Ireland’s interest but generally the right thing to do.

  3. couple of things from this…

    First, It seems clear that as part of privatizing Coillte the new owners will need to ‘get the grants’ to plant. Otherwise its not commercially viable.

    However, it goes on to note that LULUCF can be included in the future reduction effort provided that the permanence and the environmental integrity is ensured.

    Second, can the native woods and forestry that is now springing up on Coillte land where forests have been cleared but not replanted be included in the carbon figures? Its costing us nothing to grow and their environmental integrity and permanence cannot be challenged

    Same as saving the banks…. the do nothing approach should be considered… land lying idle doesn’t just wait for permission to grow something.
    On the negative it wont get the same tonnage being grown as a plantation. On the positive theres no carbon released during preparation and planting, no cost of subsidizing the planting, reduced costs on road repairs, and a much better environment for tourism etc.

  4. If forestry policy had been followed through over the decades, this debate would never have occurred. There was a great deal of opposition from farming groups representing those with marginal land to increased forestation throughout the 70s and 80s. One of the difficulties facing timber cultivation is Ireland, I was told years ago, is the moist climate – it affects timber drying times. Not sure how the Scandinavians deal with this. But if the timber is kiln dried one wonders about the carbon footprint.

  5. @ The Alchemist

    As I understand it, an issue with Irish wood is that due to the warmer climate, Irish wood grows faster and is less dense than Scandinavian wood resulting in a product that is not as useful in construction. Having said that, there are still plenty of uses for Irish wood as a construction material that would result in significant (and proven) carbon sequestration.

  6. @Sarah

    I have heard that claim before – the wood cells are slightly bigger and cell walls slightly thinner – larch may have been the main culprit but I am open to correction. I wonder is it a red herring. Coillte sends a lot of timber to sawmills. Not all of it is failing stress tests presumably and here is a lot of marginal land in Ireland suitable for nothing else regrettably.

    Broad leaf forestation in Ireland is still patchy. In France commercial oak is harvested between 60-80 years. In Italy there is a bumper wood industry built around oak and chestnut. There is plenty of potential if the forests are there.

  7. Art 8.6 and 9 of Effort Sharing Decision (which deal with whether an agreemnt occurs or not as the case may be) end with the phrase “The Commission shall assess whether the distribution of individual Member States’ efforts should be adjusted accordingly”. Not sure if its quite the silver(ish) bullet some people think it is.

  8. @ Alan Matthews,

    It is unfortunate at the moment that human civilisation is struck with two very different problems at once – peak oil and global warming. Each individual in society is asked to account for their Co2 emissions. At the same time, society is also asked to measure its energy consumption – both thermal, electrical and locomotive. We have two completely different measurements which need to be performed at once. We are not good at doing either. The problems really appear when you have two groups of experts working on the same committees. It is a well recognised fact in project management, as you add more persons, the productivity levels per participant are not guaranteed to rise. In fact, we can witness the opposite. The enterprise can collapse beneath its own weight of communication. This is what we witness at the moment unfortunately.

    We find overlap between carbon accounting and energy conservation. Which leads us into a false sense of security. You mentioned forestry above. Timber is used as a building material, and acts as a carbon sink. Forestry produce is used as a carbon neutral fuel. But listen to folk in energy conservation and they inform you of how hard it is to procure wood boilers which work. Depending on the climate zone the effects of temperature rises in coming decades, may require we use more thermal mass in buildings. We find yourself in this stand-off between opposing points of view. Both are trying to work very hard. But its like that old saying, a camel is a horse designed by committee. The green party emphasises this notion of energy security and climate change, co-exist together as bed fellows. It is unfortunate that climate change and peak oil have converged together in the time-line. Because often, the consultants are able to grab fees from looking into both problems. But that is about all that is going on presently. BOH.

  9. It is unfortunate that climate change and peak oil have converged together in the time-line.

    And why is that, exactly? It seems that fixing one fixes the other.

  10. @ EWI,

    And why is that, exactly? It seems that fixing one fixes the other.

    I don’t doubt it one bit. But we have to use all of the skill we can muster in terms of our team and human resources management. Have you ever sat amongst a bunch of these scientists and engineers for a half an hour, and seen the amount of productive work achieved? BOH.

  11. I just came across the site,

    A couple of points, the most sustainable way to grow natural native forests is to allow them to naturally regenerate, these forests do not rquire fertilisers, which add to the carbon emissions , nor do they require pesticides etc, as Plantations do. A Plantation is not a Forest. Natural native woodlands are the most valuable land based habitats on earth, they are three dimensional mazes of biodiversity fuelled by the sun. Biodiversity itself is made up of carbon, so the more natural the forest the more carbon is locked up in the surrounding habitat, this is often missed out on in these debates. Its called the Primary and secondary production in biodiversity. Plantations are green deserts causing serious ecological damage across the globe the idea of rewarding this nefarious industry by payment for carbon lock up is obscene.

    The Convention on Biological Diversity agreed by 176 Nations after the 1992 Rio Declaration on the Environment, in response to a dying planet, places the emphasis firmly on plants in situ as the most important to conserve, enhance, and restore, native trees are the highest ecological achievement in the palnt kingdom. the Convention alos encourages ecosystem management as the key to the future. The Industrial nature of Plantation management is the complete opposite of what is required to protect Biodiversity and lock up carbon in a responsilble manner.

    The privatisation of Coillte should be opposed by the citizens of Ireland as they are the real owners of the public forest estate, and cannot afford to lose the equivalent of two counties the size of Meath. Coillte should be disbanded and the Plantations phased out utilising natural regeneration of our native trees, this should be rewarded and paid out at a local community level for managing same. The native species will help to remediate the contaminated lands, and the managing should be continous cover multiple species, coppicing.

    I am PRO of an NGO promoting an alternative model and opposed to the sale of Coillte.

    I felt an obligation to share this information.

Comments are closed.