Carbon Sinks Workshop

Submitted by Anonymous on Tue, 11/09/2004 - 08:00


Jutta Kill from Fern


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Climate Change recognized as a problem by governments. This led to UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 1992. Aim was to stabilize emissions of greenhouse gases.


Governments realised that the convention alone, without binding targets was unable to achieve that goal. After years of negotiations, governments adopted the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which set out to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in over-developed (=industrialised) countries by 5.2% (compared to 1990 emission levels).


The Protocol contains binding emission targets for industrialised countries. In most cases these targets mean industrialised countries will have to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But some countries also were successful in bargaining for targets that allow them to increase their emissions (Australia for example, Ireland or Spain within the EU).


Fossil Fuel industry followed a two-tier approach to climate change:


1. deny that climate change is happening


2. ensure that commitments within the convention and protocol are as weak as possible and allow the fossil fuel industry to present itself as part of the solution rather than the key problem to climate change.


The latter was achieved mainly through introducing market-based, ‘flexible mechanisms’ into the Kyoto Protocol. These allow over-developed countries to realise part of their emission targets not through real emission reductions at home but through projects that reduce emissions elsewhere or through trading carbon credits, e.g. for planting trees.


As a result of introducing these market-based ‘flexible mechanisms’, the international negotiations have hitherto focused on setting up these market-based mechanisms rather than at addressing the real problem, climate change (Example is the way forests are discussed).


Introduction of carbon credits for tree planting and other forest and land use-related activities has had two profound effects on the Kyoto Protocol:


It has created loopholes that allow industrialised countries to continue increasing their greenhouse gas emissions while still claiming to have formally achieved their Kyoto targets. With all loopholes combined (Hot Air from Russia, non-inclusion of international aviation and sea travel emissions, Carbon Sinks), over-developed countries will be able to increase emissions by 0,3% over 1990 levels, the reference year for their emission targets. If the US does not ratify the protocol, over-developed country emissions will increase 11% over emission targets of the Kyoto Protocol.


It has made the Kyoto Protocol unenforceable because no adequate methodologies exist to verifiably measure carbon fluxes in the biosphere (quotes on cover of Sinks in the Kyoto Protocol. A dirty deal for forests, forest peoples and the climate).


The True Links between Forests and Climate Change


Forests regulate earth’s temperature and weather patterns by storing large quantities of water and carbon. They also prevent soil erosion and act as a buffer against extreme weather events (it’s never burning hot or freezing cold inside an intact forest).


Increasing temperatures will change composition and functioning of today’s forests. A third of today’s forests are likely to change their species composition. If temperatures were to rise 3ºC by 2100, forests would have to move 500km towards the poles or 500m in elevation to find the same climatic conditions as today. This is much faster than most species can disperse / move.


However, these aspects are not at all discussed at the intergovernmental climate negotiations. Instead, the discussion has reduced forests to one single, tradeable commodity, carbon.


Carbon Sequestration


Carbon sequestration describes the natural ability of plants to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as carbon This carbon is stored in the biomass, and some of it is also slowly transferred into the forest soil.


The concept of Carbon Sinks is based on this natural ability of plants, particularly trees in this case trees, to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as carbon.


In order to adapt this concept to the needs of the Kyoto Protocol, a whole new language was developed and discussions are full of jargon. The following list provides a taste of this and explains some of the terms key to the debate about forests and climate change.


Carbon Sink

Carbon Credits

Sinks and Sources

Article 3.3 / 3.4 Sink Activities

Project —Based Activities

Joint Implementation (Article 6)

Clean Development Mechanism (Article 12)







The Flawed Concept of Carbon Sinks


Trees sequester and store carbon. Therefore they can help soak up excess carbon emitted into the atmosphere through fossil fuel burning. Instead of reducing these emissions, trees can be planted as a substitute for emission reductions. To know how many trees need to be planted to make up for the continued emissions, a mathematical formula is applied, which equates carbon stored in fossil fuels with carbon stored in trees:

7 trees = 5 London to New York Single Air Tickets

5 trees = 1 year’s driving of an ordinary car

(Future Forests ‘Carbon Neutral' initiative)


Why the technical fix does not save the climate

Carbon stored above-ground is not the same as carbon stored in fossil fuel

Carbon stored in fossil fuel is stored permanently (unless we decide to drill it)

Trees store carbon only temporarily (trees decay, burn, die through insect outbreaks, seedling are pulled out, e.g. as a response to plantation establishment on disputed land)

If we assume that a molecule of carbon released from fossil fuels will be active as an agent of climate change in the atmosphere for about 100 years, then the carbon stored in the tree to ‘offset’ this additional emission would also have to be stored for at least those 100 years. Plantations of fast-growing trees like eucalyptus however, are cut after only 8-15 years.

No adequate methodologies exist to measure changes in carbon stocks in a way necessary for the market-based mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol


Why the carbon sink fix is dangerous

It reduces forests to one single, tradable commodity, carbon

It has taken away attention from the real issues

It subsidises industrial tree plantations

It may create CO2lonialism

It is already undermining forest peoples’ rights

It will aggravate forest loss and loss of biodiversity


CARBON SINKS are not a solution to CLIMATE CHANGE, they may even make it worse.



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