Article | Published:

The key role of forests in meeting climate targets requires science for credible mitigation

Nature Climate Change volume 7, pages 220226 (2017) | Download Citation


Forest-based climate mitigation may occur through conserving and enhancing the carbon sink and through reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation. Yet the inclusion of forests in international climate agreements has been complex, often considered a secondary mitigation option. In the context of the Paris Climate Agreement, countries submitted their (Intended) Nationally Determined Contributions ((I)NDCs), including climate mitigation targets. Assuming full implementation of (I)NDCs, we show that land use, and forests in particular, emerge as a key component of the Paris Agreement: turning globally from a net anthropogenic source during 1990–2010 (1.3 ± 1.1 GtCO2e yr−1) to a net sink of carbon by 2030 (up to −1.1 ± 0.5 GtCO2e yr−1), and providing a quarter of emission reductions planned by countries. Realizing and tracking this mitigation potential requires more transparency in countries’ pledges and enhanced science-policy cooperation to increase confidence in numbers, including reconciling the 3 GtCO2e yr−1 difference in estimates between country reports and scientific studies.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    Adoption of the Paris Agreement Report No. FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1 (UNFCCC, 2015);

  2. 2.

    Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) Version 4.3.1 (European Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC)/Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), 2016);

  3. 3.

    INDCs as Communicated by Parties (UNFCCC, 2015);

  4. 4.

    Paris Agreement - Status of Ratification (UNFCCC, 2016);

  5. 5.

    et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) Ch. 6, 465–522 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

  6. 6.

    et al. in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change (eds Edenhofer, O. et al.) Ch. 11, 811–886 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

  7. 7.

    et al. The Contribution of Agriculture, Forestry and other Land Use activities to Global Warming, 1990–2012. Glob. Change Biol. 21, 2655–2660 (2015).

  8. 8.

    , , , & New estimates of CO2 forest emissions and removals: 1990–2015. Forest Ecol. Manage. 352, 89–98 (2015).

  9. 9.

    et al. Global carbon budget 2015. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 7, 349–396 (2015).

  10. 10.

    et al. A large and persistent carbon sink in the world’s forests. Science 333, 988–993 (2011).

  11. 11.

    et al. Options for including land use in a climate agreement post-2012: improving the Kyoto Protocol approach. Environ. Sci. Policy 10, 295–305 (2007).

  12. 12.

    Decision 2/CP.17. Outcome of the Work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention FCCC/CP/2011/9/Add.1 (UNFCCC, 2011);

  13. 13.

    Greenhouse Gas Inventories (UNFCCC, 2015);

  14. 14.

    , , , & The role of the land use, land use change and forestry sector in achieving Annex I reduction pledges. Climatic Change 115, 873–881 (2012).

  15. 15.

    National Communications Non-Annex 1 (UNFCCC, 2015);

  16. 16.

    Biennial Update Reports (UNFCCC, 2015);

  17. 17.

    CAIT Climate Data Explorer: Paris Contributions Map (World Resources Institute, 2015);

  18. 18.

    et al. Assessing Intended Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Climate Agreement—What are the Projected Global and National Emission Levels for 2025–2030? Report No. PBL 1879 (PBL, 2015);

  19. 19.

    et al. Paris Agreement climate proposals need a boost to keep warming well below 2 °C. Nature 534, 631–639 (2016).

  20. 20.

    National Communications Annex 1 (UNFCCC, 2015);

  21. 21.

    Compilation of Information on Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions to be Implemented by Parties Not Included in Annex I to the Convention FCCC/AWGLCA/2011/INF.1 (UNFCCC, 2011);

  22. 22.

    Country Reports (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 2015);

  23. 23.

    Land Use Emissions (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2015);

  24. 24.

    , , , & Applying the conservativeness principle to REDD to deal with the uncertainties of the estimates. Environ. Res. Lett. 3, 035005 (2008).

  25. 25.

    IPCC 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories (eds Eggleston, H. S. et al.) (National Greenhouse Gas Inventories Programme, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, 2006).

  26. 26.

    IPCC Good Practice Guidance for Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (eds Penman, J. et al.) (Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, 2003).

  27. 27.

    et al. Carbon emissions from land use and land-cover change. Biogeosciences 9, 5125–5142 (2012).

  28. 28.

    , & Relevance of methodological choices for accounting of land use change carbon fluxes. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 29, 1230–1246 (2015).

  29. 29.

    , , & Terminology as a key uncertainty in net land use and land cover change carbon flux estimates. Earth System Dynam. 5, 177–195 (2014).

  30. 30.

    et al. GHG Fluxes from Forests: An Assessment of National Reporting and Independent Science in the Context of the Paris Agreement (Climate and Land Use Alliance, 2016);

  31. 31.

    IPCC IPCC Meeting on Current Scientific Understanding of the Processes Affecting Terrestrial Carbon Stocks and Human Influences on Them (eds Schimel, D. & Manning, M.) (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, 2003).

  32. 32.

    IPCC Revisiting the Use of Managed Land as a Proxy for Estimating National Anthropogenic Emissions and Removals (eds Eggleston, S., Srivastava, N., Tanabe, K. & Baasansuren, J.) (IGES, 2010).

  33. 33.

    et al. Bias in the attribution of forest carbon sinks. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 854–856 (2013).

  34. 34.

    Synthesis Report on the Aggregate Effect of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions FCCC/CP/2015/7 (UNFCCC, 2015);

  35. 35.

    The Emissions Gap Report 2015 (United Nations Environment Programme, 2015);

  36. 36.

    et al. Pervasive transition of the Brazilian land-use system. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 27–35 (2014).

  37. 37.

    et al. Assessing the INDCs’ land use, land use change, and forest emission projections. Carbon Balance Manage. (2016).

  38. 38.

    , & A role for tropical forests in stabilizing atmospheric CO2. Nat. Clim. Change 5, 1022–1023 (2015).

  39. 39.

    et al. Untangling the confusion around land carbon science and climate change mitigation policy. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 552–557 (2013).

  40. 40.

    et al. in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change (eds Edenhofer, O. et al.) Ch. 6, 413–510 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

  41. 41.

    Paris climate deal hinges on better carbon accountancy. Nature 529, 450 (2016).

  42. 42.

    Guidelines for the Preparation of National Communications from Parties Not Included in Annex I to the Convention Bonn, Decision 17/CP.8 (UNFCCC, 2003);

  43. 43.

    A Sourcebook of Methods and Procedures for Monitoring and Reporting Anthropogenic Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Removals Associated with Deforestation, Gains and Losses of Carbon Stocks in Forests Remaining Forests, and Forestation GOFC-GOLD Report version COP21-1 (GOFC-GOLD, 2015);

  44. 44.

    Integrating Remote-Sensing and Ground-Based Observations for Estimation of Emissions and Removals of Greenhouse Gases in Forests: Methods and Guidance from the Global Forest Observations Initiative (Global Forest Observations Initiative, 2014)

  45. 45.

    et al. High-resolution global maps of 21st-century forest cover change. Science 342, 850–853 (2013).

  46. 46.

    & Reporting carbon losses from tropical deforestation with Pan-tropical biomass maps. Environ. Res. Lett. 10, 101002 (2015).

  47. 47.

    Global Forest Watch (2016);

  48. 48.

    , , , & Modelling forest carbon stock changes as affected by harvest and natural disturbances. I. Comparison with countries’ estimates for forest management. Carbon Balance Manage. (2016).

  49. 49.

    et al. Multi-gas and multi-source comparisons of six land use emission datasets and AFOLU estimates in the Fifth Assessment Report, for the tropics for 2000–2005. Biogeosciences 13, 5799–5819 (2016).

  50. 50.

    et al. Update on CO2 emissions. Nat. Geosci. 3, 811–812 (2010).

  51. 51.

    IPCC Summary for Policymakers. In Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) Ch. SPM, 1–29 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

Download references


Author Jim Penman passed away recently. Jim Penman was the UK and EU negotiator on LULUCF for many years, coordinator of key IPCC methodological reports and credited as one of the key architects of the LULUCF process under the UNFCCC. He was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his work. He was an outstanding scientist and negotiator, who strived always towards a better world.

Author information

Author notes

    • Jim Penman



  1. European Commission, Joint Research Centre, 21027 Ispra (VA), Italy

    • Giacomo Grassi
    •  & Frank Dentener
  2. Cabot Institute, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1SS, UK

    • Jo House
  3. FAO consultant, 00153 Rome, Italy

    • Sandro Federici
  4. PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, PO Box 30314, 2500 GH The Hague, The Netherlands

    • Michel den Elzen
  5. University College London, London NW1 2PS, UK

    • Jim Penman


  1. Search for Giacomo Grassi in:

  2. Search for Jo House in:

  3. Search for Frank Dentener in:

  4. Search for Sandro Federici in:

  5. Search for Michel den Elzen in:

  6. Search for Jim Penman in:


G.G. conceived the analysis on (I)NDCs, executed the calculations and drafted the paper. J.H., F.D., M.d.E. and J.P. contributed to the analysis and to the writing of the paper. S.F. provided data from FAO FRA 2015 and contributed to the analysis. J.H. was supported by the Leverhulme Foundation and EU FP7 through project LUC4C (GA603542).

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Giacomo Grassi.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

About this article

Publication history





Further reading