The land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector plays a key role in achieving the EU’s goal of zero net emissions by 2050. LULUCF activities removed net 230 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (Mt CO2e) from the atmosphere in 2021, equal to 7% of the EU’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Removals are estimated to increase to 244Mt CO2e in 2022. The LULUCF Regulation sets an EU-level net removal target of 310Mt CO2e by 2030. Based on Member State projections submitted in 2023, the current implemented and planned measures will not suffice to meet the target, falling short by 50 Mt CO2e.

Figure 1. EU emissions and removals of the LULUCF sector by main land use category

The EU aims to be climate neutral by 2050, as set out in the European Green Deal. Achieving this depends on not only a reduction in emissions, but also an increase in CO2 removals from the atmosphere. The land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector has the potential to contribute by removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

The LULUCF Regulation sets an EU-level net removal target of 310Mt CO2e by 2030, with national targets for each Member State. In 2021, the EU’s LULUCF sector accounted for the net removal of 230Mt CO2e, equal to 7% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions and it is estimated to account for 244 Mt CO2e in 2022. Overall, CO2e removals have decreased in the past 10 years, mainly as a result of increased harvest of wood as well as lower sequestration of carbon by ageing forests in some Member States. Natural disturbances (e.g. wind throws, forest fires, droughts) cause inter-annual variations, and their increasing frequency has likewise been negatively affecting long-term trends. To a lesser extent, a decreased rate of net forest area gain has also contributed to the reduction in removals. Cropland, grassland, wetland and settlements are sources of LULUCF emissions at EU level, with soils containing large proportions of organic matter (mainly peat) accounting for a large proportion of these emissions, although such “organic soils” are only found in wetter and colder parts of Europe.

Member State projections submitted in 2023 suggest that net removals will decrease at EU level, from an average of 314Mt CO2e per year in 1990-2020 to 226Mt CO2e in 2021-2050. Additional measures reported by Member States are expected to increase average net removals in 2021-2050 (11% compared to existing measures scenario). The projections show that for 2030 net removals of 240Mt CO2e are expected with existing measures and 260Mt CO2e with planned additional measures. This means at present, the EU is not, on track to meet the 2030 net removal target of 310Mt CO2e.

This target entered into force in May 2023 and some countries may have not began establishing the requisite measures and reflect these in their projections.

However, discounting preliminary 2022 data, the last 10-year trend has consistently pointed in the wrong direction. There is, therefore, a need to both reverse the trend as well as to accelerate in the right direction. This requires significantly more ambitious removal measures to be implemented in the coming years.

Some measures with additional mitigation potential are increased afforestation, decreased deforestation, improved forest management, fallowing of histosols, improved crop rotation and improved grassland management. However, for many of the measures there is a challenge with the time lag between when a mitigation measure is implemented and the results.

Figure 2. Comparison of cumulative historical and projected Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) emissions and removals per Member State

Among the EU Member States, Romania, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Poland, and France were responsible for the largest cumulative net removals from the LULUCF sector in the past 10 years, contributing to approximately 87% of the EU’s LULUCF sink. Although these countries are expected to remain large contributors, all project a reduction in removals in the coming decade. On the other hand, Finland, Germany, Bulgaria, Austria, Greece, Slovenia, Belgium, Portugal and Cyprus project increasing cumulative removals in the next decade. Czechia, Latvia, Estonia and Malta however, project a reversal in the trend for net removals from the LULUCF sector, with the sector expected to shift from net removals to net emissions in these countries. The LULUCF sectors in Denmark, the Netherlands and Ireland were a net source of emissions in the past decade and are projected to remain so in the coming decade.