The amount of carbon absorbed from the atmosphere and currently stored in the forest in the form of biomass and soil organic carbon is carbon stock. As per the National Forest Inventory, the total carbon stock of Bhutan is about 645 million tonnes of carbon in the form of biomass carbon and soil organic carbon (SOC). The protection of the existing forest area will prevent releasing 645 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.
Forest carbon sequestration is the process of absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by forest vegetation annually. This sequestered carbon is stored in the forest in living biomass, litter and soil and contributes to the accumulation of carbon stock. As per the National Foret Inventory (NFI) report and as reported in the third national Communication (TNC) of Bhutan to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Bhutan’s forests sequester 9.4 million tonnes of CO2 at the rate of 3.4 tonnes of CO2 per ha of forests. The carbon is sequestered through the process of growth of forest, conservation of existing forest, increasing the forest area through plantations and improving the forest growth through sustainable management of forests. For eg. If there are no disturbances in the forests such as removal of trees or forest fires, then forests of Bhutan sequestering 9.4 million tonnes of CO2, will be stored in the Carbon stock, thus increasing the stock. Sequestration rates were determined based on the national data (NFI) and national biomass equations for the first time.
Forest carbon emission is the process of release of carbon dioxide from the forest and other sectors. The activities such as the conversion of forest land into non-forest land (deforestation), harvesting of timber and forest fires release carbon dioxide in the forest sector. As per the TNC of Bhutan to the UNFCCC, the total emissions from all sectors (Energy, Industrial Processes and Product Use (IPPU), Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) & Waste) for Bhutan was 3.81 million tonnes of CO2e in 2015. (All Green Houses Gases are ultimately converted and reported as CO2 equivalent, so is reported as CO2e).
Carbon Neutrality and Carbon Negative
Carbon neutrality means that the amount of carbon sequestration from the atmosphere and carbon emission into the atmosphere are equal. If the amount of carbon sequestered is more than the carbon emitted, then the country is a carbon negative. In 2015, our total carbon emission was 3.81 million tonnes of CO2e annually and forest sequestered 9.4 million tonnes of CO2. This makes Bhutan carbon negative with -5.6 million tonnes of CO2 sequestration in 2015 and this is known as the remaining carbon budget for Bhutan.
Carbon Emission and Sequestration baselines under the REDD+ mechanism
Under the UNFCCC mechanism, developing countries are encouraged to reduce CO2 emissions from forests and increase sequestration of CO2 from the atmosphere under the mechanism known as REDD+ (Reducing emission from Deforestation and forest Degradation and role of conservation of forest carbon stocks, sustainable forest management and enhancement of forests carbon stock). The REDD+ is a result-based mechanism, where developing countries are expected to be compensated for reducing emissions and increase sequestration. Under this mechanism, Bhutan has developed the baseline for emission from forest sector through deforestation (which is the loss of forests land to developmental activities) known as Forest Reference Emission Level (FREL), and sequestration of CO2 which is Forest Reference Level (FRL). The FREL & FRL of Bhutan was submitted to UNFCCC, which was assessed technically by experts of UNFCCC and is now available online in UNFCCC. FREL and FRL were submitted to strengthen Bhutan’s position and commitment under its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) by revalidating the forest cover, instituting a system to quantify and monitor carbon stocks and establishing a benchmark for tracking its performances in terms of forest conservation and management. The baseline for emission from forests of Bhutan is 505,837 tonnes of CO2e, while the net sequestration capacity is 8,539,085 tonnes of CO2 (8.5 million tonnes = 9.4 million tonnes – emissions through harvesting of timber and forest fires. Therefore, 8.5 million tonnes is the net sequestration capacity).
These baseline references will be applicable if Bhutan decides to participate in the result-based payment under the international REDD+ mechanism. For Bhutan to be eligible for the payment, the emission (FREL) should be below 505,837 tonnes CO2 and the sequestration should be more than 8,539,085 tonnes CO2 per annum as the payment is only for emission reduction from the FREL or additional sequestration from the FRL baseline (additionality). Therefore, for every area of deforestation under the FREL, an equivalent area of forest will need to be re-planted to compensate for the sequestration under the FRL.
Carbon Neutrality and Paris Agreement
The Paris Agreement (PA) is a legally binding international treaty on climate change adopted in 2015, where countries who signed the agreement, pledged to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. Towards achieving this target, countries should ensure measures to reduce their emissions, increase carbon sequestration and become carbon neutral through their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies (LT-LEDS). Bhutan is also a party to Paris Agreement and pledged to remain carbon neutral in 2009, with further commitment through the first and second NDC to the UNFCCC.
Opportunities for remaining Carbon Neutral
In line with the Paris Agreement conditions, we are in a better position as we are already carbon neutral (in fact negative). However, records (1st national communication, second national communication and current third national communication as well as the FREL and FRL of Bhutan) shows an increasing trend of emissions from all sectors (Energy, Industrial Processes and Product Use (IPPU), Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) & Waste), including the forestry sector (due to loss of forest lands, forest fires, increasing harvesting of timbers). Therefore, opportunities are there to maintain the current carbon budget and keep on remaining carbon negative, fulfilling carbon-neutral pledge and NDC.
The opportunities are of two ways: Firstly, conserve and manage the forests of Bhutan to ensure sequestration capacity is maintained. Forests are the cornerstone of the carbon neutrality pledge and therefore, protection and sustainable management of forests should be first priority. Forests destruction will mean forests will become a source of CO2. For instance, as per the FREL and FRL of Bhutan study, one hectare of forest stores about 624 tonnes of CO2. If this forest is deforested, all of this CO2 will be released into the atmosphere. On the contrary, one hectare of new plantation absorbs only about 3.4 tonnes of CO2 per year and would take about 183 years to replenish the 624 tonnes of CO2 stored in the existing forests. One hectare of forests protected and managed also means sequestration of 3.4 tonnes of CO2 per year. The FREL and FRL report also show emission of 0.04 tonnes of CO2 for every cubic foot (cft) of timber harvested. Therefore, we have opportunities to invest in conserving and sustainably managing the forests and also ensuring every cft of timber harvested is utilized to the full potential (reduce wood waste). Forest loss can be prevented by ensuring minimum disturbances to the forests while carrying out any developmental activities. Having a good forest cover not only reduce emissions and increase sequestration of CO2 (known as mitigation of climate change), it can also be a safety cushion against the impacts of climate change such as floods, landslides, windstorms and loss of crops, which is known as adaptation towards climate change. Additionally, forests provide various ecosystem services, which are not accounted for such as regulation of water flow, which is used downstream for hydropower generation, drinking water and/or irrigation. The valuation study done by the Department of Forests and Park Services shows an annual contribution of more than 1 billion USD by the forests of Bhutan in the form of various ecosystem services. This is the used value of ecosystem services benefitting the Bhutanese, whereas the potential value could be more than 15 billion USD as reported by other studies.
The second opportunity is the reduction of emissions from other sectors. There are investments around clean and green technologies with researches in full swing to develop technologies to reduce emissions. Bhutan can also benefit from these processes and these opportunities should be availed (although might be expensive at the start but that’s the trend and future and if we stay back, we will be left behind). We can with few things like replacing the cookstoves in the schools with clean stoves (electrical or solar stoves) or install solar panels for heating purposes in schools. The recently submitted 2nd NDC of Bhutan to UNFCCC as part of the Paris Agreement details the various measures in line with reducing the emissions. There are a number of strategies developed by different sectors but yet to be implemented due to lack of financial means. Therefore, before it is too late, there is an opportunity for a coordinated effort to secure financing as well as technological resources, and Bhutan can benefit from this process.
Dr Jigme Tenzin, Thimphu
The views expressed are of the individual’s opinion and not of the agency.