Science-based approach for credible accounting of mitigation in managed forests

Giacomo Grassi*, Roberto Pilli, Jo House, Sandro Federici, Werner A. Kurz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)
208 Downloads (Pure)


Background: The credibility and effectiveness of country climate targets under the Paris Agreement requires that, in all greenhouse gas (GHG) sectors, the accounted mitigation outcomes reflect genuine deviations from the type and magnitude of activities generating emissions in the base year or baseline. This is challenging for the forestry sector, as the future net emissions can change irrespective of actual management activities, because of age-related stand dynamics resulting from past management and natural disturbances. The solution implemented under the Kyoto Protocol (2013–2020) was accounting mitigation as deviation from a projected (forward-looking) “forest reference level”, which considered the age-related dynamics but also allowed including the assumed future implementation of approved policies. This caused controversies, as unverifiable counterfactual scenarios with inflated future harvest could lead to credits where no change in management has actually occurred, or conversely, failing to reflect in the accounts a policy-driven increase in net emissions. Instead, here we describe an approach to set reference levels based on the projected continuation of documented historical forest management practice, i.e. reflecting age-related dynamics but not the future impact of policies. We illustrate a possible method to implement this approach at the level of the European Union (EU) using the Carbon Budget Model. Results: Using EU country data, we show that forest sinks between 2013 and 2016 were greater than that assumed in the 2013–2020 EU reference level under the Kyoto Protocol, which would lead to credits of 110–120 Mt CO2/year (capped at 70–80 Mt CO2/year, equivalent to 1.3% of 1990 EU total emissions). By modelling the continuation of management practice documented historically (2000–2009), we show that these credits are mostly due to the inclusion in the reference levels of policy-assumed harvest increases that never materialized. With our proposed approach, harvest is expected to increase (12% in 2030 at EU-level, relative to 2000–2009), but more slowly than in current forest reference levels, and only because of age-related dynamics, i.e. increased growing stocks in maturing forests. Conclusions: Our science-based approach, compatible with the EU post-2020 climate legislation, helps to ensure that only genuine deviations from the continuation of historically documented forest management practices are accounted toward climate targets, therefore enhancing the consistency and comparability across GHG sectors. It provides flexibility for countries to increase harvest in future reference levels when justified by age-related dynamics. It offers a policy-neutral solution to the polarized debate on forest accounting (especially on bioenergy) and supports the credibility of forest sector mitigation under the Paris Agreement.

Original languageEnglish
Article number8
Number of pages16
JournalCarbon Balance and Management
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 17 May 2018


  • Bioenergy
  • Carbon Budget Model
  • European countries
  • Forest
  • Reference level
  • Sink

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