Sinks: A carbon reservoir

There is lot os uncertainly on the question of carbon sinks. To what extent can they actually absorb carbon dioxide emissions? And, should forests in the South be used as CO2 deposits for the North?

By Nikhat Jamal Qaiyum
Published: Tuesday 15 September 1998

Sinks: A carbon reservoir

-- (Credit: Ashok Dilwalil)THE issue of land use change and forestry (LUCF), and its treatment as "sinks", has always loomed large in climate change negotiations in the past. It was among the hotly-debated subjects in the lead-up to the Kyoto meeting in December, 1997, and was subsequently addressed in Articles 3.3 and 3.4 of the protocol. That the issue has now gained tremendous momentum can be gauged from the fact that the meeting of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) held from June 2-12 in Bonn, Germany, saw a good part of the 10-day discussions addressing it.

Carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere by a number of processes that operate on different time scales, and is subsequently transferred to reservoirs or sinks. The fastest process of removal is absorption into vegetation and surface layer of oceans. Roughly, sinks are of three types - oceanic, terrestrial (forests) and inferred or "missing".

Under the Kyoto Protocol, Annex 1 (industrialised) countries have to reduce their carbon emissions by 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels in the first commitment period, that is 2008-2012, The Articles allow industrialised countries to take into account changes in emissions resulting from "human-induced land use change and forestry activities limited to afforestation, reforestation and deforestation since 1990." In simple words, the protocol allows for the use of afforestation as ,1 sink to reduce co2 levels in the atmosphere. Hence, without doing much to reduce emissions from burning ot fossil fuels, Annex 1 countries can now take recourse to afforestation programmes to show reduction in CO, levels and thereby meet their specified commitments.

This "Net Approach", proposed by New Zealand, was adopted in the protocol despite scientific uncertainty surrounding the contribution of sinks in reducing carbon levels in the atmosphere. At present, information about sinks and its rate of absorption is minimal. And as revealed by Stephan Singer, head of department, climate and energy policy, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), "LUCF is an extremely complex issue which is poorly understood by most nations."

In Bonn, many nations accepted the scientific uncertainties surrounding the issue. While there was consensus on the need for a special report on sinks from the pre-eminent scientific body, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there was a virtual battle over every other detail of the report, in particular its timing.

The us pressed for a quick report. Seconded by Japan, it voiced the "urgent" need for a decision because it would "influence the ability of some countries to ratify the protocol." However, the us scheme had nothing to do with the need for scientific understanding. It was only pushing sink-related activities forward to get started with emissions trading proposed under the Clean Development Mechanism (COM).

The COM is simply a mechanism to allow developing countries " assist Annex I parties in achieving compliance with their quantified emission limitation and reduction commitments..." However, COM is nothing hut a "cleaner" sounding version of Joint Implementation (n) mechanism that proposes project-based investments by Annex i countries in the South. And sinks provide the cheapest, most efficient portfolio of projects to invest in and earn carbon credits.

By growing trees in the South, Annex I nations are doing nothing but shifting the responsibility of emissions reduction to the latter. And the South will not even earn merit for cleaning the atmosphere. Moreover, such a scheme would mean that once Annex I countries have reached high levels of energy efficiency, they would have no economic incentive to invest in developing countries and the latter will be forced to cut back emissions on their own, at a much higher cost.

The US proposal for a quick-fix solution came in for heavy criticism from most nations as well as non-governmental organisations (NCOS). "Like the captain of the Titanic, the US is steaming ahead into very dangerous waters by pressing for a quick and dirty IPCC special report," said Kelly Sims of Ozone Action. "Caving into US pressure will guarantee that many parties perceive the IPCC as a tool of US policy," Sims added.

Stephan Singer and Lars Georg Jcnsen of the WWF, who were active in lobbying the NGO concern in the issue, said that under the protocol, the focus of forest conservation is on carbon reduction issues but not on the most effective means of reducing emissions at source. They voiced fears that "without clear rules, it is likely that the Net Approach will be used by unscrupulous players whose interest is neither forest nor climate change".

The European Union (EU), G-77 and China, with support from the NGOs, urged that no decisions related to LUCF should be taken until broad scientific assessment had been done. Hence, it was requested that the IPCC write a special report (not a technical report as suggested by the us), separate from the Third Assessment Report (TAR). It is expected to be ready in late 2000, in time for the Sixth Conference of Parties (COP-6). It was pointed out that a technical paper would be inappropriate since the IPCC cannot assess the implications of the treatment of LUCF without using the latest scientific data available to facilitate decisions by the parties.

Other than the question of timing, delegates had contentious viewpoints on the content of the proposed IPCC report, consideration of its result, impact of addressing only forests as sinks and the timing of workshops to be conducted on the issue.

The final negotiated draft stated that SBSTA understands Article 3.3 (which addresses forests as sinks) to mean that the adjustment to a party's assigned amount shall be equal to the verifiable changes in carbon stocks during the period 2008 to 2012 resulting from direct human-induced activities of afforestation, reforestation and deforestation since 1 January 1990. The clarification of the term "since 1990" as the base year for all estimates had become a contentious point. Its interpretation to mean activities initiated not in 1990 but in 1991 was most strongly resisted by Australia, which had at stake many projects initiated in the year 1990.

Debate centered on holding a work-shop to consider Article 3.4 (which addresses non-forest terrestrial sinks). Finally, it was decided that a workshop of experts to coincide with an IPCC expert meeting should be held prior to COP-4 which is to take place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in November this year. Canada and US suggested that the workshop be the venue where definitions (reforestation, afforestation and deforestation) will be elaborated. However, the EU, the G-77 and China said that it would be unsound to define these key categories before the IPCC has determined which of the LUCF activities are quantifiable, veritable and transparent. It was finally decided that the work-shop would consider data availability based on LUCF definitions by parties.

COP-4 is likely to face short-term and long-term questions on LUCF in relation to the Kyoto Protocol. Delegations have already begun to feel the complexity and enormity of the protocol.

One pertinent question remains: will the IPCC special report on LUCF be ready for COP-6 to be held in 2000? This is significant because Annex I countries may begin to accrue certified emissions reductions in that year. Canada and the us, in the meantime, will continue to press for an early resolution of the sinks issue.

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