News: To tree or not to tree: Can Norway improve EU’s land accounting rules?

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Norway was the third country after Switzerland and the EU to officially submit its climate contribution towards the Paris climate agreement. Like the EU, Norway announced an at least 40% emission reduction target by 2030, which it intends to fulfill jointly with the EU by joining the EU’s 2030 climate framework. While Norway has made it clear that land sector accounting shall not affect its ambition level, the EU has left doors open for forestry accounting tricks. If the EU want to jointly fulfill its 2030 climate target with Norway, the EU must also exclude the option of planting trees to offset emissions.

By joining the EU’s 2030 climate framework, Norway hopes to make use of intra-European rules that will allow for flexibility to reduce emissions in sectors not covered by the EU’s Emissions Trading System i.e. the transport, agriculture, buildings and waste sectors. These are regulated by the so called Effort Sharing Decision. The other half of Norway’s emissions are already covered by the EU’s climate regime, since Norway joined the EU ETS in 2007.

European leaders decided last year to flesh out existing flexibilities within the non-ETS sectors with the aim to unlock mitigation potential in lower income Member States that often lack the necessary resources. This is in principle is a good idea.  However, at the same time a new flexibility is under discussion that would allow countries with relatively ambitious 2030 targets to use allowances from the ETS towards their non-ETS targets. This is problematic because it reduces incentives for emission reductions in the non-ETS sectors, potentially jeopardizing mitigation efforts in the building, transport, agriculture and waste sectors.

In case Norway joins the EU’s climate regime, one key issue that remains unclear is which rules will apply for the land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector. Counties like France and Ireland want to be able to plant trees to offset their emissions in other sectors. For Norway, the size of this offsetting loophole could be up to 21 million tonnes of CO2 in the year 2030, which is the amount of carbon Norwegian forests are projected to remove from the atmosphere by 2030. This would make Norway’s climate target completely redundant.

The ongoing dialogue between the EU and Norway will need to ensure that the promised climate pledges will also materialize in practice. Norway has made it clear that land sector accounting shall not affect its ambition level for 2030, so if the EU wants Norway to join its climate framework it should adopt the same approach. This can be achieved by placing the carbon sinks from soils and forests in a separate policy pillar, thereby ensuring that non-permanent carbon sequestration in forests cannot offset permanent greenhouse gas emissions from other sectors.

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