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France climate ambition ends where the forest begins

France likes to be seen as a leader on climate action, but when it comes to the role of forests, the country’s priorities lie elsewhere.

[This article originally appeared on]

With negotiations over the EU’s 2030 climate targets in full swing, some countries, including France, appear to be dragging down the bloc’s ambition over the accounting of carbon emissions from forestry and the use of forests as carbon sinks. This is no small matter in France: some 30% of the French mainland, or 16.7 million hectares, is forested.

Yet, according to NGO Fern, France, along with other heavily forested EU member states such as Finland, is pushing for emissions linked to forestry activities not to be accounted for in full.

Wood fuel occupies an important place in the French energy transition law, as one of the alternatives to fossil fuels that should move the country’s energy mix from 23% renewable in 2020 to 32% in 2030.

The EU’s big wood consumers have appealed to the Maltese presidency of the Council to weaken the carbon accounting requirements for the fuel, and in the initial draft proposal, seen by EURACTIV, their concerns have been accommodated. The proposal will be discussed by national experts today (23 May) in Brussels and the final vote by the bloc’s 28 environment ministers will take place on 19 June.

Forest cuts

France hopes that the final document will not force countries to account fully for the carbon released by deforestation by 2030, despite the fact that reducing forest cover does, de facto, increase carbon emissions.

Austria, Finland and Sweden, all of which are heavily forested, have all taken the same line. France has also argued that optimal carbon capture requires regular cuts to forests.

Article 8 of the text under discussion suggests that forestry emissions be allocated half their real carbon weighting, to keep all parties happy. “It is a compromise on a compromise, which is not good enough,” said Hannah Mowat, a campaigner at Fern.

“And the argument for the optimal management of forests does not match up with the climate emergency: we have to significantly reduce the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere in the next 20 years, otherwise it will be too late, in terms of warming,” she added.

In 2018, the IPCC will publish a report on the possible ways to limit global warming to +1.5°C. This long-awaited document is expected to lean heavily on natural carbon sinks such as forests.

For the EU’s other countries, the study published by Fern contains few surprises: Germany is ranked as the most ambitious, while Poland comes firmly in last place. France is ranked 16th out of the 28.

But the compromise on forestry emissions could well be adopted as a consequence of the legislative calendar: the EU’s environment ministers have a number of texts to get through, including those on the governance of the Energy Union and renewable energies. And any hold-ups could prove damaging to the bloc’s climate action.

It remains to be seen whether the arrival of Nicolas Hulot at the head of the French environment ministry will change the situation.

[Translated by Samuel White]