Climate Change Update: What Have You Done with LULU(CF)?

A disaster is looming at the climate change negotiations relating to the way countries are allowed to account for greenhouse gas emissions from land use activities and forest management practices. It’s a topic that’s been given one of the catchier acronyms within climate change circles – LULUCF, which stands for Land Use, Land Use Change, and Forestry (LULUCF) – and it could have major impacts on the various natural habitats that wild animals need to survive in a warming world.

A disaster is looming at the climate change negotiations relating to the way countries are allowed to account for greenhouse gas emissions from land use activities and forest management practices. It’s a topic that’s been given one of the catchier acronyms within climate change circles – LULUCF, which stands for Land Use, Land Use Change, and Forestry (LULUCF) – and it could have major impacts on the various natural habitats that wild animals need to survive in a warming world.

The panoply of ways in which we develop land – from soy farms and cattle ranches to shopping malls and subdivisions – all have implications for climate change as carbon rich forests, peat bogs, grasslands, and marshes are developed, releasing the carbon stored there as biomass and lowering the ability of the land to absorb and store carbon in the future. As more land is developed, more carbon is released into the atmosphere. But the opposite is also true, as reforested land retains more carbon and actually removes more carbon from the air.

The challenge for negotiators is to decide how best to account for emissions from land development and changes in land use at a national and global scale so that that they can determine how those changes are impacting a county’s greenhouse gas reduction commitments. The main sticking point is the setting of reference points – basically “snapshots” of land use and forest cover at a certain point in time and then starting the accounting from that point. The best course of action for wildlife is to take this “snapshot” now so that countries will need to increase restoration of forest and other habitats if they are to meet their emissions reductions commitments.

However, some countries are advocating for those “snapshots” to be based on projections of what the land might look like in the future rather than how it looks now, which could cause some to grossly over-project how much land development will occur. Those countries could then use those over-projections to claim large reductions in emissions in furtherance of their commitments – phantom reductions based on projections for country-wide development scenarios that were never going to happen in the first place.

The result could be the setting of highly ambitious emissions reduction targets that would be canceled out by emissions increases due to LULUCF. In extreme cases, a country could meet its emissions reduction target without ever actually reducing emissions at all, all the while continuing land development at the expense of wildlife and its habitat.

Unfortunately, the mostly developed countries that want projected reference levels are winning thanks to powerful players like the EU and the U.S. Though it remains to be seen what will ultimately happen, it’s clear at least for now, LULU(CF) has definitely left the building, and wild animals will be the first to suffer for it.

-- PT

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