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Emissions credits: Case for trees isn't clear-cut
The global solution to combat climate change is far from being clear-cut.
As 180 nations gather to finalize a global climate change treaty in The Hague, Netherlands, in the next two weeks, a controversial question will accompany them: Should forests be used and credited for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by absorbing carbon dioxide?
As mandated by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, industrial nations are required to reduce carbon emissions by 5 percent below their 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.
The United States, Japan, Australia and Canada are proposing to curb their rapidly growing emissions from energy use by applying forest carbon storage to meet Kyoto Protocol targets.
Led by Worldwide Fund for Nature, the Native Forest Network and Greenpeace, a coalition of conservation groups claim that industrial nations should not be allowed to apply credit for carbon that is stored in trees. Counting on forest carbon storage to meet Kyoto Protocol targets does not follow the intent of the agreement, the groups claim, and it will lead to rapid deforestation.
"(As currently drafted) the Kyoto Protocol could actually accelerate forest destruction by giving incentives to plant large-scale plantations on formerly native forest land," said Jennifer Morgan, climate change campaign director for WWF.
A report released Thursday by the three organizations points to several studies in Australia, where carbon sequestration projects led to deforestation and the loss of biodiversity.
The report blames Japan's largest power utility, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, for destroying native forest in the Australian state of Tasmania and replacing it with fast-growing eucalyptus plantations intended for carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol. The company's investment of US$5 million accounts for 3,000 hectares of eucalyptus tree plantations that are expected to yield TEPCO 130,000 metric tons of carbon credits. These credits could be used to offset rising carbon emissions in Japan.
"This project in Australia is just one example of what could go terribly wrong for the world's forests if the governments of Japan, Australia and the United States get their way next week at the climate summit in the Hague," Morgan said. "Instead of reducing the pollution that causes global warming, these countries are looking for quick fixes that have high risks for forests."
According to the American Lands Alliance, agreements made at the climate change summit in The Hague could affect the future management of 500 million acres of forest land in the United States.
"A good treaty has the potential to allow landowners to protect their property and receive carbon credits," said American Lands Campaign director Steve Holmer. "The problem is that the way the treaty is written now, carbon credits could go to timber companies that log old growth and replace them with genetically engineered tree farms."
"In developing countries the situation could be even worse because developing countries do not have to count their emissions under the Kyoto Protocol," Morgan notes. "Private companies from industrialized nations will seek cheap carbon credits for their country in the developing world."
WWF and Greenpeace are calling on the Hague convention to exclude reliance on carbon sinks from the Kyoto Protocol and its Clean Development Mechanism. Industrialized nations should instead achieve their Kyoto commitments through domestic reductions in global warming gases and energy conservation programs, they say.
A study published in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature supports this argument.
Forests might actually accelerate the process of global warming because carbon dioxide will be released from soils and decaying forests as the climate warms, researchers at the United Kingdom's Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction noted.
"Trees only absorb carbon to a certain point in their lifetime," Morgan said. They have a saturation limit, like everything else."
"Warmer temperatures and less precipitation can also have a severe impact on forests," she explained. "In a quicker period of time it could turn a forest from a sink where it is absorbing carbon into a carbon source. If we are trying to meet the (Kyoto) target through forest activity and sinck activity, which are inherently risky and impermanent, then you are putting in place a very ineffective way to fight global warming."
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