How should the world’s nations account for the carbon absorbed by their forests? We better figure it out

Siberian-taiga-forest Siberian Taiga. Credit: Elkwiki

In the Kremlin’s telling, Russia’s biggest contribution to slowing climate change lies within the vast forests of Eastern Siberia, which are credited with sucking as much as 551 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in 2018, the most recent year for which data are available.

That, according to Russian authorities, is enough to offset 38% of the Russia’s national greenhouse gas releases – an encouraging chunk for a country that is, by most measures, the world’s fourth biggest emitter.

In his appearance at a virtual climate summit last month, President Vladimir Putin capitalized on this approach, saying that committing to new emissions caps is not enough to avert the worst effects of global warming. Instead, he said, nations must also absorb carbon dioxide already accumulated in the atmosphere, adding that Russia makes “a colossal contribution” to sopping emissions out of the air– both its own and those produced by other countries – due to the absorbing capacity of its forest ecosystems.

“Russia has 20% of global forests, so the international community must be fair in that respect,” Alexey Chekunkov, minister for the development of the Russian Far East and Arctic told Bloomberg. “We have the potential to turn them into a massive carbon capture hub.”

Such assertions from Moscow aren’t exactly new. For more than a decade, Russian politicians have sought to deflect attention from upwardly spiraling post-Soviet emissions by pointing a finger toward the Eastern Siberian taiga, an immense packing of boreal forests on the Asian half of the country that occupies roughly the same acreage as India.

It’s a convenient sleight of hand. Russia, as the world’s biggest fossil fuel energy exporter, has some of the least ambitious emissions cutting goals of any major economy to ratify the Paris Climate Accord, the international pact seeking to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. At a time when the European Union and the US are vowing to halve their emissions by 2030, Russia’s climate proposals would see its own emissions continue to creep upward until midcentury.

russia emissions Credit: Alt-n-Anela (Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alt-n-anela/)

Unsurprisingly, that’s because Russia doesn’t plan to change much in the way it produces its energy. Moscow’s long-term climate strategy forecasts continued reliance on fossil fuels for as much as 57 percent of the country’s energy mix by as late as 2050 – the year by which many major economies plan to be carbon free.

As a result, Russia’s 640 billion trees could come in pretty handy, especially when Moscow comes to the bargaining table in Glasgow, where, in November, nations will gather to determine whether the world is actually on track to cut its emissions enough to honor the Paris agreement’s goals. No doubt, Russia will argue that it’s doing its part.

Carbon removal vs carbon reduction

Yet Russia’s claims to its forests aren’t necessarily wrong, either. Carbon gobblers like forests and other land-based ecosystems are indeed powerful tools for muting the effects of human greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019 alone, they were responsible for absorbing 21.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Without them, climate change would be far worse.

The problem is how such natural carbon removal tactics – or carbon sinks – are counted when climate negotiators sit down to do the math and determine where the world actually stands in its emissions-cutting goals.

As it turns out, things aren’t adding up. According to a recent study, there’s a huge gap between greenhouse gas emissions acknowledged each year by the world’s nations and the emissions calculated by the independent models used to verify those claims.

The gap between the two turns out to be 5.5 gigatons of CO2 – roughly the equivalent of what the United States, the world’s second biggest emitter, releases each year.

Russian birch forest Credit: Y Nakanishi / Flickr

Giacomo Grassi, a forest expert at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, and lead author of the study, published last month in Nature Climate Change, called this a “huge gap” in an interview with the Washington Post. “It’s like if the navigation system provides information in miles, and the car dashboard in kilometers.”

Under the Paris accord, nations report detailed information on their emissions to the United Nations – including those that are subtracted from the atmosphere by forests and other land use. But between 2005 and 2015, the study Grassi authored with 22 other scientists found that some countries have claimed to take so much additional carbon out of the air that it obscures whether they are actually meeting individual commitments to cut emissions at their source.

This hits to the core of the ‘net-zero’ debate which was recently re-ignited by youth climate activists. When used appropriately and transparently, a ‘net-zero’ target (emissions minus sinks) can be a good way to stop damaging the climate. Yet, as the recent study suggests, there is much to be desired by way of transparency on this front.

Everybody’s doing it

Russia is only one among a number of countries – including Brazil, Canada, and the United States and many others – that are benefitting, at least on paper, from the enormous carbon “sink” provided by their forests. The result is that after these countries add up the emissions from the power they generate – the cars on their roads, the coal fired plants they operate, and other sources – they are allowed to then subtract a substantial amount based on the carbon-sponging role of their land.

Russia, for instance, reported 1.99 billon tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, agricultural activity, and other sources in 2018, according to Climate Watch. But then it subtracted 551 million tons of those emissions to account the role of its forests and other land management efforts geared toward removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Ultimately, the “net” emissions Russia reports to the international community that year totaled 1.44 billon tons – or almost a third less than actually left the country’s tailpipes and smokestacks.

ThinkstockPhotos-90976354 Credit: Thinkstock

The US uses a similar equation. In 2019, it subtracted 789 million tons of CO2 emissions from a total of 6.6 billion – thus grabbing a 12 % savings on the greenhouse gas releases it reported to the UN, thanks to forests and other land-based ecosystems alone.

Some countries, like Myanmar, already count themselves as being carbon negative already because of their forests, despite the fact that their carbon emissions are forecast to rise. In Myanmar’s case, the plan seems to be to go carbon neutral ­– rather than carbon negative – by pinning its hopes on its abundant trees.

This points to another issue: can we trust that carbon removal offsets will be reliable? If some governments exaggerate the size of their land sink and use it so they can keep their foot on the gas, what is to stop others from following suit?

It’s easy to see where overreliance on national carbon sinks could lead. Simply put, current greenhouse gas inventory reporting isn’t designed to measure and monitor true mitigation efforts – things like taking internal combustion engine vehicles off the road in favor of electric cars, or shuttering coal-fired power plants and replacing them with wind and solar.

Clearly some sort of distinction should be drawn between reductions brought about by shifts in economic activity and removal thanks to trees and other terrestrial

Bellona’s work in drawing the line

It’s over precisely such potential mismatches that Bellona and other NGOs have long lobbied European Union leadership to separate the accounting of carbon removal and carbon emissions. Owing to this campaigning, the bloc’s new climate law, committing the EU to a net emissions reduction of 55 %by 2030, includes a cap on how much natural carbon removal can be included to make up that figure.

That cap stands at 225 million tons, meaning that 52.8 % of the bloc’s proposed emissions cuts will be due to actually preventing carbon releases into the atmosphere, with the remainder accounted for by forests and other natural land-based carbon swabs.

The law thus establishes that the overwhelming majority of the EU’s mitigation efforts will need to be done by reducing emissions, with carbon removal helping to go the extra mile.

That’s a significant milestone for climate policy design which allows the much-needed deployment of negative emissions to go ahead without jeopardizing efforts to reduce emissions in the first place. The overall potential for carbon removal will be limited by planetary and socio-economic boundaries, which means we need to ensure we use them as effectively as possible.

Separating removals from cuts provides other benefits. Firstly, the targets for both emission reductions and carbon removals are now clear and unambiguous, a necessity when setting long-term objectives. Secondly, this will enable both to develop in parallel while providing the ‘safe space’ to address the difficulties of deploying carbon removal in practice, such as permanence, additionality, and market design.

The new EU climate law is not the end of the conversation. But it marks a healthy start to one that is bound to be difficult and complicated.

Now that there is a ground rule for reductions and removals to happen in parallel in the short-term, work will advance to set up the framework to deploy carbon removal so in the longer-term, these approaches can be robust enough to rely on.

This is all significant to Glasgow’s COP26 talks, where world leaders will hope to close the over-running negotiations on how the Paris Agreement should work in practice. Of the many points to be discussed, carbon removal is very likely to be at the core, offering both an opportunity to delay or an opportunity to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The EU approach of setting a cap for the contribution of the land sink could ensure we aim for the latter.