Benedek Javor is a Green Hungarian MEP. He has been working on a key file in the European Parliament on Climate change, the so-called ‘Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry' regulation, a key part of the European energy and climate policy framework for 2030. In this interview, he explains the importance of forests in the fight against climate change but also the challenges when it comes to ensuring that they continue to be able to help us decreasing our emissions.
Benedek, before we get into the politics, could you tell us a bit about why forests are important in the fight against climate change and what their role is?
Forests are playing a key role in tackling climate change. They function as ‘sinks’, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere but also enhance landscape resilience against climate change and providing environmental services, including increasing water quality and quantity and reducing soil erosion.
While it is key for us all to do our utmost to encourage the development of energy-related measures such as improving energy efficiency and boosting the development of renewable energy sources, something which the Greens in the Parliament are pushing for a great deal, one should not forget the role of nature and the role of forests in particular in mitigating climate change.
How would forestry be taken into account under EU rules?
Well, if we are to respect the Paris Agreement objective of limiting global warming well below 2°C and decreasing all our emissions to net zero by 2050, we clearly do not have any time to lose and emissions should be reduced in all sectors. By protecting and restoring forests we can easily remove CO2 from the atmosphere and preserve and enhance the carbon sink. However, this has to be done in a very cautious and sustainable way in order to prevent intensive logging, unsustainable forest management and deforestation, which would have serious negative impacts on our climate.
The climate impact of forests are dealt in the so called LULUCF regulation, which is one the pillars of the Union’s energy and climate policy. LULUCF stands for ‘land use, land use change and forestry’, under which managed forestland is the largest chunk.
What has been happening in the European Parliament? What is the debate like now?
Earlier in September, the European Parliament voted on the proposal for the new LULUCF regulation, establishing rules for accounting for emissions and removals in the land use sectors for the period 2021-2030. This is a key part of the European energy and climate policy framework for 2030. The EU regulation will also set an international precedent, and is therefore of utmost importance. But the outcome of the European Parliament’s vote was extremely disappointing, and potentially really harmful to our climate.
As shadow rapporteur for the file both in the environment and industry committees, I had been already sounding the alarm much earlier on in the negotiation process but the internal debate was highly poisoned by misunderstanding, misinterpretation and special interests. During the negotiations, I have always defended the Green view which is to advocate and establish fair, honest, transparent and credible accounting rules - that is accounting for all land use categories, including for managed forests on a net-net basis (i.e. comparing historical level of carbon sink with the future sink). Unfortunately, the initial proposal by the European Commission already starts with a false assumption that considers forest management practices that occurred in the past as 'sustainable' or ‘climate neutral’. Altogether, the Commission sets a zero net emission target for the sector (in the context of an overall greenhouse gas emission reduction target of 40% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels).
Among other efforts to strengthen the proposal, we Greens introduced the concept of ‘negative emissions’ in line with the commitments Europe made in Paris at the COP21 in 2015. This means going beyond the realm of a simple offsetting of emissions from land and forests and requiring efforts to enhance their role as a carbon sink.
This is far from being perfect, but I guess the Commission proposal is kind of a ‘neutral position’, an attempt for finding the balance among the diverse interests and reflecting the different circumstances of EU Member States.
However, the final outcome of the work in the Parliament was, let’s say, less respective of the atmosphere. The compromise reached in the environment committee already saw the proposal weakened. But the final vote in plenary weakened it further, with many MEPs failing to resist the huge pressure from lobbyists. A last minute amendment from the conservatives (which was also supported by the rapporteur himself, the very same one who negotiated the position in the environment committee!) weakened the constructive work we had done beforehand…. This removed ‘intensity’ from the description of past forest management practices, resulting in less clarity and transparency, and allowing for LULUCF carbon sink reduction until 2050.
In my view, the majority of MEPs failed to understand what was a stake. This regulation is about accounting rules for specific emissions without the intention to interfere in Member States’ land use and forest management practices. We only want to ensure that countries that change their practices (e.g. the harvesting volumes) do also honestly account for the impacts of such changes.
To my regret, the European Parliament also created incoherence between the LULUCF regulation and the Renewable Energy Directives. The new reference period (2000-2012) and the fact that it is policy based also mean that emissions from increased harvests for bioenergy clearly triggered by the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive will not be accounted for at all.
My fear is that without this pillar the whole climate and energy framework could be damaged. A bad LULUCF regulation will undermine the EU’s leadership in and the whole fight against climate change. After all, you can set unclear accounting rules, but you cannot cheat the atmosphere.
What are the next steps? What will the Green group do?
The Parliament now has a mandate to negotiate with the European Commission and European Council on the final agreement. With the parliament’s recent vote watering down the proposal, it is completely unpredictable how reference levels will now be dealt with. I fear that the environmental integrity of LULUCF (and how reductions achieved under this sector could be used to compensate for efforts that are not done in other ones such as industry, buildings and energy) is likely to be undermined. I will continue keeping a close look at the negotiation process in order to control any further damage. The work will also continue with another file, the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive, where MEPs (and the Council) will need to strengthen sustainability criteria for bioenergy from forest biomass.
You are organising an event on this subject with some key actors tomorrow, on 28th September. Could you let us know more about this and why you are doing it?
The event is taking place this Thursday afternoon in the European Parliament. It aims to influence the next steps regarding the negotiations on LULUCF but also to help ensure a good outcome in the negotiations on the Renewable Energy Directive. I will co-host the event with my fellow MEP Paul Brannen, who is also shadow rapporteur for LULUCF. Together with the NGOs FERN and Birdlife we want to demonstrate all the multitude of ecosystem services forests provide us with, and also the role that can play in meeting the sustainability development goals globally. To us Greens, it is really key that the different roles played by forests are recognised, and balanced.
* Read more information on LULUCF from CAN Europe, Fern and birdlife.
* More information on the event on LULUCF ‘Lungs of the Earth – forest policies for climate and health ‘ co-hosted by Benedek Javor can be found here.