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lead.jpg (22302 bytes)    Volume 3 
   Number 4
   26 October 1998 


Espen Rønneberg, Minister Counsellor

Permanent Mission of the Republic of the Marshall Islands to the United Nations

The issues relating to carbon sequestration and sinks in general have become very important issues to resolve in the context of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol. The issue of carbon sinks has been pushed to the forefront primarily by some very vocal industrialized countries, but has also been supported by some members of the G-77. The Marshall Islands delegation, and indeed the Members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), have taken a very careful approach to the issue.

Regarding the Marshall Islands national position. First, there is no opposition to promoting carbon sinks and carbon sequestration - but we ask at what cost. Second, there is no opposition to protecting forest biodiversity - quite the contrary, conservation and sustainable management of forestry are very high on our list of priorities. Third, there is no opposition to early action under the Kyoto Protocol, which some Parties assert can only happen if we allow for sinks projects. I disagree with that assertion, and would rather stress the need for meaningful action on the part of the industrialized countries that address the main cause of greenhouse gases emissions. Our basic principles in all aspects of the future work of the Convention is to reduce scientific uncertainties, ensure a functioning regulatory framework that can account for credible reductions, and ensuring that a compliance regime is put into place. Therefore, the reluctance to see sequestration as a primary effort in combating climate change is coupled with an even firmer conviction that sequestration should be outside the Clean Development Mechanism.

The Chair of the AGBM, Ambassador Raul Estrada, wrote one of the best arguments for this position in a book produced by UNDP. After having discussed the process that led to the creation of Article 12 in the Kyoto Protocol, and the absence on an explicit reference to sinks he writes:

"The other side of the same coin relates to forest management to reduce carbon emissions which, without management, would be generated by deforestation. A couple of developing country governments are offering "carbon certificates" for a price in exchange for sustainable management of areas in risk of deforestation. Since binding commitments on forest protection do not exist and agreement on them does not seem possible in the near future, it is difficult to understand how the baseline on such projects can be defined. In fact, thousands of square kilometers of rain forest are at risk of deforestation and, if that happens, millions of tons of CO2 will be emitted. Providing "carbon certificates" on an endless hypothetical deforestation would be the best way to ensure that CO2 emissions from developed countries will continue - that means "business as usual" and perhaps worse. Should that be considered an admissible political behavior? Is it not part of the normal responsibility of governments to protect their own natural resources?"

There can be no question about the importance of preserving and managing forestry resources in a sustainable manner. There are many reasons for doing this - forestry biodiversity, prevention of land degradation, etc. The Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol both recognize that there is an important effort to be made by the industrialised countries in terms of increasing the absorption of greenhouse gases by so-called "sinks". The same duty is of course incumbent upon developing countries, but it is recognized that action by developing countries is on a different time scale altogether. AOSIS has stated the view that their use would introduce uncertainties, and distract the protocol from focusing on its main policy task of shifting the global economy away from its excessive dependence on fossil fuels.

There is therefore no argument about the importance of carbon sinks in general, but rather the issue at the heart of the matter is the question of whether carbon sequestration can be used to offset carbon emissions. If they can, then to what extent can they be used. If they can not, then what purpose will they serve in the framework of the climate change regime.

The problem of including sinks is two-fold. On one hand, there are tremendous difficulties in measuring the uptake by sinks in a scientifically accurate manner. I have been told that in fact the most certain way to measure exactly how much carbon a tree has absorbed is to keep track of it from the time it is a seedling to the time it is cut down. It can then be weighed, keeping in mind the chemical composition of that type of wood. Of course, at that point the tree will absorb no more carbon. Because there is a great deal of variance in the way single trees grow, the best methods at present represent no more than estimates as to how much carbon has been absorbed. The range of uncertainty with certain types of forest is up to 60%. Compare this with industry where the uncertainty is 0 to 7%, depending on the type. Clearly methodologies will need to be improved. Some countries are asserting that their national methodologies are very precise, but these assertions will have to analysed and assessed by the experts, through the IPCC. AOSIS has made such a request, and the consensus at the 8th session of SBSTA produced valuable input for consideration by the IPCC in their preparations for a special report.

The second problem is that the industrial and transport sectors are the primary culprits for causing climate change. We know what the emissions are with a high degree of certainty, and we know what can be done to reduce them. Many of these methods of reducing emissions can be described as "no regrets" measures. It seems logical that we should concentrate on those steps first, capping industrial and transportation emissions.

The use of the term sinks is very appropriate. Sinks get clogged up and overflow, and cracks often appear through excessive use. A forest grows old, stops absorbing carbon and it can burn down. A forest can experience the phenomenon of carbon saturation. Thus, a forest has a finite and limited contribution to make in terms of being a carbon sink. At some stage it ceases to be a sink. But once fossil fuels have been burned, they stay burned.

Industry and cars will continue to emit at constantly growing rates unless steps are taken. It seems to many observers and delegates from the developing countries that, for political reasons, it is more expedient for the industrialised countries to argue in favor of forest preservation, especially in developing countries, rather than set in place the right conditions domestically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from sectors such as cars and industry. Moreover, if sinks projects are given equal value with emissions reductions from industry, and polluting industries are given the option of purchasing "emission credits" abroad, rather than reduce pollution at home, of course the cheapest route will be chosen. In such a scenario, industry, by engaging in sinks projects in developing countries, these industries will have "legitimately" made their required reductions. No concern will be made in the balance sheet on the longevity of the reduction made.

This is a critical point on the issue of the credibility of the reductions that are required under the Kyoto Protocol, and is an issue that AOSIS has reiterated.

We are extremely concerned with the need to avoid unnecessary loopholes and the creation of perverse incentives. This would include cutting down old growth forest, rich in biodiversity, and replanting with fast-growth mono-culture. Clearly this is not in anyone’s interest, even to those who have not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Clearly there is a lot of work that needs to be done by scientists and experts on the issues relating to carbon sinks before any decision can be taken by the Conference of the Parties.

It is in the interest of all developing countries to use the avenues created by the FCCC to promote sustainable development, through such efforts as renewable energy. Important opportunities can be created for this purpose in the CDM.

It is not in our interest to create new loopholes for certain industrialized countries to export out their domestic obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is unfortunate that some of developing countries are being targeted as potential sinks projects recipients. The CDM should not allow for sinks projects, at least as long as the developing countries have not assumed emission limitation or reduction commitments, and as long the existing uncertainties concerning verification of the impacts of sinks upon developing countries have not been clarified, as well as the effects of climate change on our forests. There is a serious danger that we may account for credits for planting forests, without penalizing for deforestation.

The unscrupulous industrialized countries who are seeking to promote such projects need to be reminded of their obligations under the Convention itself as well as under the Kyoto Protocol - to reduce their own emissions of greenhouse gases - the primary focus of which should be domestic action. We must reduce the excessive reliance on fossil fuels. We must reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases in a credible and verifiable manner. And in my personal view this will not be assisted by creating a vast stockpile of readily flammable forests and wood products.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They are not intended to represent those of any government or intergovernmental organization.