Proposals on forest carbon may create more problems than they solve in Cancún talks

Jason Funk, Ph.D. is a Conservation Analyst and expert in forestry and land-use policy. He is writing from the U.N. climate negotiations in Cancún.

The tiny Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu and South Africa at the U.N. climate talks in Cancún this week proposed new forestry climate accounting schemes that would undo three years of tough negotiating to create fair rules for all forestry nations in the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol.

To be sure, the option that has been on the table for the past year, called “reference levels”, is a little convoluted. It allows Parties to estimate the amount of emissions future forestry-related activities would create, then measure the benefit of their efforts to reduce carbon emissions based on their expectations of what those emissions might have been.

Not exactly a system that inspires trust.

Tuvalu, South Africa proposals would undo recent progress, be too crude to work

But Tuvalu has proposed a plan that takes a step backward, when we need to move forward. Tuvalu would erase any progress made on key issues over the last two or more years: how to deal with catastrophic fires and pest outbreaks, how to account for wood products, and how to manage the ups and downs of harvest cycles in plantation forests. It took hours of deliberation to craft texts on these issues that could preserve environmental integrity while allowing Parties to get a handle on accounting for this sector.  The Tuvalu option would scrap this work and ask a technical group to start over from scratch.

The proposal from South Africa is problematic for a different reason: it partially accepts the reference levels approach, but asks Parties to average their reference levels with their recent forest emissions. The intention is to reduce the potential for gaming the system by tying the reference levels to a some real, quality-controlled data.  But the approach is too crude and arbitrary to work.  It would still allow countries that ARE gaming the system to earn the most rewards, while potentially punishing those that are doing a good job.  Furthermore, it doesn’t have a basis in science – it’s simply a political fix to try to limit the worst damage globally.   It doesn’t get the incentives right for individual countries.

Recommendations to improve forestry accounting

Time is short. The high-level ministers will negotiate this issue next week, and they want to reach a conclusion here in Cancún.  Clearly, the new proposals signal that the reference levels approach is still a problem, at least for a few countries.   If their comfort level doesn’t improve by next week, they could block a decision here, dragging these negotiations into next year.

So what can be done at this point?

If the proponents of the reference level approach want to see it move forward, they need to put pressure on the Annex I parties who are abusing its flexibility– namely, those who are including recent bioenergy mandates in their reference levels, which will lead to increased harvests of wood for fuel.  Also, some parties are selectively using advantageous reference years for their reference levels.

They should work for convergence on reference levels, by agreeing to revise them so that they are anchored in a historical average of net forest emissions of at least 10 years, to balance out random variations.

They could then use models to project the effects of past management on future forest conditions – a procedure that would deal with the fact that forests in many countries are aging and their growth is slowing down.

Most importantly, they should excise the effects of recent policies from their reference levels.   The best way to do this would be to have a policy cut-off date of 2005, the year the Kyoto Protocol came into force, instead of the current date of 2009.

These changes are technically achievable by all the Annex I parties, and they would give reassurance to their non-Annex I peers (as well as environmental NGOs).  The accounting changes would only impact a few hold-outs, who are using the current flexibility to their advantage.

Parties shouldn’t hesitate to put pressure on these hold-outs, because this is an agreement that affects us all.  We can’t afford to waste another year without progress on a climate agreement.

This is part of a series from EDF’s experts, who are blogging regularly from the U.N. climate conference in Cancún on EDF’s Climate Talks blog.

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