Forest Reference Levels

Will Forest Reference Levels limit harvests and wood industry development in the EU?

Recently, the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) adopted the draft report of the Committee’s Rapporteur, MEP Norbert Lins, on the regulation of Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF). The policy is of utmost importance for the forest and agricultural sectors as it defines the climate benefits of forest management and the use of wood. But have you known what is the scientific rationale behind the new Forest Reference Levels (FRLs) approach in the EU? Read more…

Forest Reference Levels approach in the EU?

The main aim of Forest Reference Levels (FRLs) is to ensure that the accounting of forest mitigation is comparable to the standard accounting of mitigation in other greenhouse gases (GHG) sectors. This comparability facilitates the identification of the most cost-effective mitigation actions.

Without doubt, the accounting of forest mitigation outcomes should solely reflect the impact of changes in forest management practice relative to a historical reference period. Based on lessons learned under the Kyoto Protocol, FRLs need to be projected assuming the continuation of forest management practices documented in a reference period. For the EU, this period was defined to be 2000-2009 (EU 2018, Art. 8.5).

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FRL approach considers the country-specific forest characteristics and the age-related forest dynamics. Therefore, changes in carbon sink can depend on the age-class legacy resulting from past management and natural disturbances, and the continuation of historical forest management activities, which may result in increase or decrease in harvest volumes.

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In consequence, countries are not “penalized” if more harvest takes place in the future purely as a result of continuation of the historical forest management practices.

FRL unit and example

The unit of FRL is not a wood harvest amount (m3), but a net flux of CO2 equivalent/year (emissions or removals of GHG). For living biomass, this net flux derives from the difference between carbon gains (i.e. forest growth or net increment) and carbon losses, i.e. mainly harvest, but also other natural disturbances.

Grassi et al. (2018) give following example:

“For example, a FRL of -20 MtCO2e/y may be the result of a projected growth of -50MtCO2e/y and projected harvest equivalent to 30 MtCO2e/y, both based on the continuation of forest management practices documented for the period 2000-2009. If the growth during the compliance period exceeds the growth used for the FRL, e.g. the growth increases to -55MtCO2e/y  because changes in management practices after 2009 led to increased forest productivity, then a harvest equivalent to 35MtCO2e/y (i.e., higher than what was included in the FRL) may be realized without generating “debits”. This is an incentive to better and more productive forest management, rather than a constraint on harvest.”

And now the most important part, i.e. comparability across sectors. Since the forest sector supplies products that are used by other sectors to reduce their emissions (e.g. by substituing more carbon intensive products in the energy and building sectors), a country might therefore decide to increase harvest to levels that will generate “debits” in the forestry sector, in the knowledge that this would create GHG accounting savings (and other benefits such as employment, economic activity, trade) in other sectors.

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Finally, it should be noted that the EU Regulation grants Member States a significant degree of flexibility to increase their future harvest beyond that modelled in the FRL without directly penalizing their accounts, under certain conditions and up to certain limits.


EU, 2018. Regulation (EU) 2018/841 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2018 on the inclusion of greenhouse gas emissions and removals from land use, land use change and forestry in the 2030 climate and energy framework, and amending Regulation (EU) No 525/2013 and Decision No 529/2013/EU (Text with EEA relevance).

Main photo: Rafal Chudy

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