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  Consensus   Mitigation   Flexibility   LUCF

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BioSphereDoubts about the prospect of global climate change decrease with the growing consensus among scientists and governmental decision-makers alike. Meanwhile, the international community has come to understand the impact of human activities on the global climate. Consequently, the possibility of having to establish greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets becomes increasingly likely. Accompanying the many reports releasing new data confirming the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is a growing understanding of and respect for the possible deleterious effects that such an alteration in the concentration of gases in the atmosphere could have on the global environment. As a result, the heated debates within the international community are no longer centered on the viability of global climate change theories, but rather they are centered on the logistical details of international action. With the recent reports of an increase in the global average temperature for the first five months of 1998 of a half a degree centigrade and the billions of dollars in destruction caused by an increasing number of tropical storms, tornadoes and hurricanes which have been indirectly related to the effects of "el niño" and climate change (1), global leaders have been given the impetus to make short term sacrifices in order to find creative and long term solutions.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol adopted at the third Conference of the Parties (COP-3) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was the first step to mitigate the threat of global climate change by reinforcing the need for all Parties to achieve stabilization of Greenhouse Gases by setting legally-binding commitments to reduce global emissions for industrialized (Annex I) countries. For the first time, after 11 days of difficult negotiations, Party members agreed upon emissions targets for Annex I countries (developed countries–members of the OECD and Eastern Europe) for the post-2000 period.

By arresting and reversing the upward trend in greenhouse gas emissions that started in these countries 150 years ago, the Protocol promises to move the international community one step closer to achieving the Convention’s ultimate objective of preventing dangerous anthropogenic [man-made] interference with the climate system. (2)

The commitment made collectively amongst the developed countries was to reduce global emissions of six different GHG by 5.2% of 1990 levels by the commitment period of 2008 to 2012. This figure represents the global average of diverse national commitments ranging from 8% reductions for the European Union, Switzerland, and most central and eastern European states and a 6% reduction for the United States to permissible increases of up to 10% for Iceland. (3) The countries have, in addition, committed to making demonstrable progress by the year 2005.



Since GHG emissions arise from numerous human activities and natural processes, including land use change, fossil fuel (coal, oil, and natural gas) burning, waste disposal, and livestock, opportunities for mitigating GHG emissions arise in a myriad of human activities. These can be generalized into three main areas:

  • Avoiding production or release of CO2 in the first place by improving energy production and conversion efficiencies, preventing the loss of threatened forests, promoting demand side management efforts, encouraging the switch from carbon-intensive fuels (such as coal) to less carbon-intensive fuels (such as natural gas or renewable energy sources), or capturing and storing CO2 before it is released to the atmosphere.
  • Removing CO2 from the atmosphere after it has been released by planting new trees, improving management and growth rates of existing trees, changing agricultural practices to increase soil carbon uptake, or growing and utilizing energy crops.
  • Reducing the emissions or production of other greenhouse gases by reducing emissions of methane (landfills, coal mines, natural gas pipeline leakage, and livestock), nitrous oxide (biomass burning and agricultural fertilizers), and chlorofluorocarbons and chlorofluorocarbon substitutes (air conditioning and propellants). These measures are usually expressed in terms of CO2 equivalents, based on the global warming potential of the different gases.



However, due to the difficulty of actual reductions, the Protocol allows for the use of several market-based "flexibility mechanisms" that allow Annex I countries to supplement their domestic efforts with investments in emissions reducing activities abroad including Joint Implementation, the Clean Development Mechanism, and emissions trading. (4) Of most relevance to developing countries, without formal emissions reduction obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, is the newly created Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM, created by Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol, establishes a means by which industrialized countries and companies can pursue climate mitigation projects in developing countries and receive offset credits that can be applied against their own emissions targets. More specifically, "The CDM allows governments or private entities in industrialized countries to implement emission reduction projects in developing countries in order to meet their emission objectives. These industrialized nations receive credit for these projects in the form of certified emissions reductions (CERs)." (5)

Article 12 provides the fundamental parameters within which the CDM should be further defined. Its fundamental objective is to "assist Parties not included in Annex I [developing countries] in achieving sustainable development… contributing to the ultimate objective of the Convention and to assist Parties included in Annex I in achieving compliance with part of their quantified emission limitation and reduction commitments." (6) In addition, the Protocol states that a share of the proceeds from certified project activities will be used to cover administrative expenses as well as to assist countries which are particularly vulnerable to adverse effects of climate change to meet the costs of adaptation. Thus, the CDM has the potential to facilitate the annual flow of billions of dollars from industrialized to developing countries for climate change, environmental protection and adaptation, and sustainable development projects.

Under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, decisions relating to the development of operational criteria and structures for the CDM are to be made by the first meeting of the Parties to the ratified Protocol. This meeting is not likely to occur for several years. In the vacuum characterized by uncertainty, many groups are looking for ways to more adequately define the parameters under which the CDM should work.



In particular, how land-use change and forestry (LUCF) mitigation interventions will be treated under the Kyoto Protocol or any successor instrument remains uncertain. While the Protocol clearly allows the inclusion of net changes in biotic sources and sinks to meet the commitments of Annex I countries under Article 3.3, the treatment of LUCF projects for project-level mitigation interventions undertaken under Articles 6 and 12 remains the subject of vigorous debate. For example, according to some observers of the Kyoto process, the lack of specific reference to biotic sources and sinks in Article 12 of the Protocol suggest that such projects were intentionally left out and are not eligible. Other participants to the same discussions in Kyoto assert the opposite conclusion. Thus, how the CDM ultimately will treat land-use and forestry-based carbon offset projects is still widely regarded as unclear. (7)

Still, incorporating LUCF projects would make a number of mitigation options available to interested parties under the CDM:

1) Slowing or stopping the loss of existing forests, thus preserving current carbon reservoirs: Forest Preservation or the prevention of deforestation

2) Creating forest in areas which have historically not been forested: Afforestation

3) Replanting forests in areas which have historically been home to forests: Reforestation

4) Increasing the carbon stored in carbon reservoirs such as agricultural soils and wood products through improved forest health and growth capacity

5) Substituting sustainable biomass energy sources for fossil fuel consumption: Energy use changes (8)

The potential of these different options to mitigate global climate change is likely to vary widely, and each poses very different challenges. While the technical potential of biomass energy is very large, so are the barriers to its large-scale utilization. Similarly, slowing or stopping existing forest loss also has a very large technical potential, but poses very different types of challenges that are both implementational and political.

Despite the range of options available, forestry has been a contentious topic in climate change mitigation. Concerns being voiced regarding the use of forestry for mitigation purposes fall into several broad categories:

  • That forestry projects may cause environmental damage and impede socioeconomic development in developing countries;
  • That forestry and land use change mitigation efforts might impede progress on achieving actual emissions reductions and interfere with technology transfer objectives;
  • That biotic offsets involve more unsolved complex analytical issues than do energy and other GHG offsets, including monitoring and compliance issues; and
  • That the mitigation benefits of land use-based offsets are potentially temporary. (9)

Extensive work on forestry mitigation options, however, has shown that most of these concerns can be successfully addressed. Indeed, forestry and land use-based mitigation options are far more similar to other mitigation options than they are different. Of key importance in thinking about forestry-sector mitigation efforts are the positive externalities often associated with these projects. Forestry projects under the CDM offer excellent opportunities for developing countries to advance a series of objectives including; sustainable development, biodiversity conservation, formation of human capital, transfer of technology, capital transfer, foreign currency transfer, possible job creation, improved eco-tourism, and a reduction of local pollutants. (10)

The above analysis represents the views of the authors alone and in no way represents the opinions of Stanford University.
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