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What is the European Unionʼs pathway to limit global warming to 1.5°C?

How to citeLast update: August 2022

LULUCF emissions profile trajectories

The EU27 reports that over the past two decades, its emissions from the land use sector have been more than balanced by removals on managed land, mainly through carbon sequestration in managed and natural forests, and in organic soil such as peatland. Spain, Sweden, Italy, France, Poland and Romania made up most of the EU27’s LULUCF removals in the past 10 years.2

Net carbon removals in the EU27 have been on a declining trend for several reasons: i.) Europe’s forests sequester less as they age, ii.) forests have been converted to urban areas and iii.) there has been a rise in harvest rates to fulfil a growing demand for wood. In 2019, net removals amounted to about 249 MtCO₂e.25 By 2030, the EU27 plans to reverse this trend and increase net removals to 310 MtCO₂e through forest restoration, sustainable land management and afforestation/reforestation.47 This level of removals would be similar to the levels that prevailed in the 2000s.

In the 1.5°C pathway analysed here, removals from afforestation/reforestation reach 64 MtCO₂/year by 2030. However, this does not include some of the removals reported historically in the EU27’s greenhouse gas inventory, which occur on managed land but are not classified as human-induced by the model used to generate our pathway (see note below). If these removals were included in the modelled pathway, the sink in 2030 would likely be larger. In the longer term, the magnitude of these removals are highly uncertain, but are likely to decline as managed forests reach an equilibrium state.

Other estimates for the potential effect of near-term mitigation measures in the EU27 suggest that a larger overall sink could be achieved by 2030 than the EU’s current target. For example, an analysis has estimated that reducing the forest harvest rate by 60% could result in a net removal of around 430 MtCO₂/year in 2030.1 When different mitigation measures are integrated (afforestation, forest restoration, harvested wood products (HWPs), peatland restoration, grassland protection), estimates for the EU27’s potential net removals are estimated to be between 340 and 570 MtCO₂/year in 2030.1,8,9

In the longer term, the 1.5°C pathway analysed here indicates that reforestation/afforestation could remove 540 MtCO₂/year by 2050. This is more than – but still fairly consistent with – scenarios developed by the European Commission to achieve the EU’s net zero target. For example, the EU’s LIFE-LB scenario, which prioritises land-based removals while minimising reliance on bioenergy, reaches net removals of 471 MtCO₂e/year in 2050 for the EU27. In the EU 1.5TECH scenario, which combines natural sinks and carbon removal technologies, natural sinks would remove 317 MtCO₂/year.10 Estimates suggest that integrated measures in the land sector could allow the EU27 to reach a net removal between 300 MtCO₂/year to 787 MtCO₂/year in 2050.1,8,9,1113

These ranges suggest a high but uncertain potential sink for the land sector in the EU, with sustainable land management practices and land restoration playing an important role. However, increasing climate change impacts are already affecting European forests and other ecosystems, making it likely that the future land sink in Europe will be vulnerable to continued warming; these effects are not yet well captured by the kinds of models used to develop these estimates.6 There is also uncertainty in possible biophysical impacts of changed land management practices, and these will need to be considered when developing local and national strategies.24

Note: There is a discrepancy in the definition of historical emissions accounted in the 1.5°C compatible pathway and the national greenhouse gas inventories. In 1.5°C compatible pathways, the land-use net emissions arise from human-induced effects on managed land, such as land-use change that leads to deforestation, harvesting, and the growth of new forests. The national emissions inventories include both human-induced and natural effects on managed land, including CO₂ fertilisation caused by increase CO₂ concentration, natural disturbances and forest regrowth.14

1 Böttcher, H., Reise, J., Hennenberg, K. & Oeko-Institut e.V. Exploratory Analysis of an EU Sink and Restoration Target. (2021).

2 European Environmental Agency. Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry. 2021.

3 Ceccherini, G. et al. Abrupt Increase in Harvested Forest Area over Europe After 2015. Nature 583, 72–77 (2020).

4 European Commission. Regulation Amending Regulations (EU) 2018/841 in the Land Use, Forestry and Agriculture Sector, and (EU) 2018/1999 as Regards Improvement in Monitoring, Reporting, Tracking of Progress and Review. (2021).

5 European Commission. Communication. New EU Forest Strategy for 2030. (2021).

6 Forest Europe. State of Europe’s Forests. (2020).

7 European Commission. Impact Assessment. Proposal for a Regulation on Nature Restoration. (2022).

8 EU CALC. The EUCalc Transition Pathways Explorer. (2020).

9 European Commission. Impact Assessment. Stepping up Europe’s 2030 Climate Ambition. 2020.

10 European Commission. A Clean Planet for All. A European Long-Term Strategic Vision for a Prosperous, Modern, Competitive and Climate Neutral Economy. (2018).

11 Duscha, V. et al. GHG-Neutral EU2050: Scenario of a European Union with Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions. 2019.

12 ClimateWorks Foundation & European Climate Foundation. The CTI 2050 Roadmap Tool. 2019.

13 Nabuurs, G.-J. et al. By 2050 the Mitigation Effects of EU Forests Could Nearly Double through Climate Smart Forestry. Forests 8, 484 (2017).

14 Giacomo Grassi et al. Critical Adjustment of Land Mitigation Pathways for Assessing Countries’ Climate Progress. Nature Climate Change 11, (2021).

15 Eurostat. 39% of the EU is Covered with Forests. Eurostat (2021).

16 FERN. Nature Restoration Law offers Hope for EU’s Stricken Forests. FERN (2022).

17 European Commission. Regulation on Nature Restoration. (2022).

18 Gabbatiss, J. & Viglione, G. Q&A: Will EU Common Agricultural Policy Reforms Help Tackle Climate Change? 2021.”:https://www.carbonbrief.org/qa-will-eu-common-agricultural-policy-reforms-help-tackle-climate-change/

19 Wood, J. Europe Bucks Global Deforestation Trend. World Economic Forum (2019).

20 Tan, J. Reforestation Holds Promise for Europe’s Increasingly Drier Summers. Mongabay (2021).

21 Griscom, B. W. et al. Global Reforestation Potential Map. (2017) doi:10.5281/zenodo.883444.

22 Snippe, E. & Taylor, K. EU’s 3 Billion Trees by 2030 Goal: Where We Stand. Euractiv (2022).

23 PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. IMAGE. Integrated Model to Assess the Global Environment. Preprint at models.pbl.nl/image/index.php/Welcome_to_IMAGE_3.2_Documentation (2021).

24 Grassi, G. et al. On the realistic contribution of European forests to reach climate objectives. Carbon Balance and Management 14, 8 (2019).

25 FAO. FAOSTAT: Emissions Totals. FAOSTAT (2022).

the European Unionʼs LULUCF emissions

MtCO₂/yr

200520102015202020252030203520402045205020552060−500−400−300−200−1000100
131−442−311
126−441−315
115−413−298
114−363−249
1010101
61−126−64
92−283−192
95−408−313
24−483−460
16−559−543
13−573−559
11−538−527
  • Historical removals on managed land
  • Historical land-use emissions
  • Net historical land-use emissions
  • Modelled removals from afforestation / reforestation
  • Modelled land-use emissions
  • Net modelled land-use emissions

Forest area change

Currently, Europe’s forests are facing the combined challenges of increasing climate change, other environmental impacts and growing demand for wood products. Wood has been increasingly used for energy and harvested wood products (HWPs) in other economic sectors to reduce emissions.6 Between 2010–2020, wood demand led to increased harvesting, which was not complemented by afforestation/reforestation at an adequate rate, causing a decline in carbon sequestration.2,5,15

Natural disturbances have also affected forest cover in recent years. From 2015 to 2020, extreme weather events, such as storms followed by a bark beetle infestation resulted in forest cover loss in the EU27, which will affect the long-term trend of carbon removals by forests.5,6

Forest cover gains in the EU27 during 2005–2020, was mostly due to natural regeneration in abandoned cropland. A smaller part of forest cover gain was due to afforestation.6

Under the 1.5°C compatible pathway analysed here, the EU27 would need to halt deforestation by 2040, and avoid any possible deforestation afterwards. Furthermore, the pathway indicates that the EU27 would need to rapidly increase forest area, starting almost immediately, through sustainable afforestation/reforestation. The pathway implies a potential increase in forest cover on managed land of around 1.5 million ha annually over the next few decades.

The EU27 would need to ensure that afforestation and reforestation can expand forest areas in a sustainable manner (see section below). Additionally, there is a need to reduce harvesting pressures on forests, especially by moving away from clear-cut approaches, and it will be imperative to consider how mitigation options in other sectors (e.g. the use of bioenergy) affects emissions and sustainability in the land sector.7,16,17,24

the European Unionʼs Forest area change

Million ha / yr

2025203020352040204520502055206000.512
2−0.092
2−0.12
2−0.11
202
2−0.041
101
0.2−0.20.02
0.2−0.040.1
  • Modelled forest loss
  • Modelled afforestation and reforestation
  • Modelled net forest area changes

Evolution of land-use pattern

Besides forests, croplands and pastures also dominate the EU’s landscape. Croplands are net sources of CO₂ emissions in the LULUCF sector due to the drainage of peatlands and conversion of grassland to cropland.1 By 2020, much of the previously cultivated cropland had been abandoned due to an increase in crop productivity which reduced the need for land. Trees have grown naturally in the abandoned cropland, which has expanded the forest area.18,19

Under the 1.5°C pathway analysed here, the EU’s forested area increases by 16 million ha by 2030, compared to 2020. This is substantially more than the EU’s pledge to plant three billion trees by 2030, which is estimated to only cover three million ha across forested, agricultural and urban areas.5,17,20,21 The EU27 is currently far from achieving its own goal; between 2020–2022, the EU27 only planted 1% of its 3-billion-trees goal.22

A reduction in the area of pastures and croplands, to make space for increased forest area, would require a combination of technological advances and sustainable management in the sector, as well as shifts towards more plant-based diets.18 Agroforestry that combines woody plants and crops can also enhance carbon removal in cropland.1,18,19

the European Unionʼs Land cover areas

million ha

20202030204020502060100200300
26
27
27
32
32
189
206
221
235
236
9
10
11
12
12
56
44
34
24
23
112
105
98
89
90
  • Other Natural Area
  • Forest
  • Builtup
  • Pasture
  • Cropland

the European Unionʼs land cover change relative to 2020

million ha

−40−200204020302050
  • Other Natural Area
  • Forest
  • Builtup
  • Pasture
  • Cropland

Footnotes