At this week's global climate talks in Bonn, developing countries have begun fighting a gambit by rich nations to use a forest accounting "trick" that would allow them to boost their planet-warming emissions without penalty. For the first time, a bloc of Central African nations sternly called on countries to close the so-called "logging loophole" entirely.
Chris Henschel, a policy manager at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, who has been attending the negotiations in Bonn, said the surprise move by the African bloc "gave things a real shake up."
The G77 plus China group of countries, also concerned about the loophole, offered a parallel proposal that would increase transparency but do little to make the loophole smaller.
The logging loophole, which comes under the Kyoto Protocol's "Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry" (LULUCF) program, would let signers of the 1997 treaty hide their CO2 emissions, literally, in their trees. It would do so through a type of "creative" accounting.
Forests act as crucial carbon sinks, so when nations measure their total emissions, they typically subtract the carbon dioxide stored in trees from the greenhouse gas total.
Under the proposed rule, rich nations want to count their emissions reductions from forest conservation against a baseline to be determined in the future, not against a known baseline in the past. In contrast, carbon cuts for fossil fuel emissions are almost always measured against an historic year, most typically 1990 or 2005.
The rule creates an accounting trick that would give logging industries two advantages. First, it would provide them a green light to continue to cut forests for several years under a "business-as-usual" path; and second, the rule would then measure carbon reductions against this elevated future level.
According to advocates, if countries end up exploiting the logging loophole their emissions reductions would be far less than they claim.
In fact, according to an analysis by the Climate Action Network, a coalition of around 500 non-profit organizations, the technicality would result in a "hidden" 400-megaton increase in emissions each year.
The complicated language was added by forested rich nations to new Kyoto Protocol negotiating text last year. Supporters of it include Austria, Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and Japan.
African Nations 'Lit Off Firecracker' in LULUCF Talks
On Thursday, the Central Africa Forests Commission (COMIFAC), a bloc of ten African nations, issued a memo in Bonn asking these logging giants to shut the loophole entirely.
"The current negotiations ... need to improve and close current loopholes in the LULUCF rules of accounting," the memo, obtained by SolveClimate, said. "We urge developed countries to take their responsibilities and to reduce their LULUCF emissions compared to their historical level."
The group also pleaded for clarity in the increasingly complex debate. The debate on LULUCF "is always full of surprises, with numbers and new rules at each session ... The COMIFAC countries feel lost with the increasing level of complexity of the LULUCF debate," it said.
Henschel said the memo "lit off quite a firecracker on the negotiations on LULUCF and forestry."
"It was completely unexpected ... Everyone came out of that room kind of dumbstruck and not knowing what to do about it," he said.
Prior to that, few if any parties were willing to take such a stand, with the exception of civil society groups.
For its part, the G-77 plus China released a compromise proposal on Saturday that would at least "try to minimize the cheating," Henschel said. The proposal would establish an independent panel to review reference points that countries select to meet their carbon-reduction pledges.
According to Peg Putt, of the Wilderness Society of Australia, it's basically "a transparency initiative." While it would ensure openness about reference levels, she told SolveClimate in an email from Bonn, "it doesn't do much to actually reduce the size of the loophole.”"
Henschel for the most part agreed.
"The G77 and China proposal will not fix the problem," he said. "We need them to demand more, just as we need [rich nations] to step forward and take basic responsibility for their logging emissions."
A Willing Negotiator on the Other Side?
"[The G77 plus China] evidently don't feel like they can do more than that." They want to move to find a compromise and move the talks along, Henschel said, but on the other side of the table "no one's willing to play along and take responsibility."
Russia, for instance, submitted a proposal on Saturday to make the loophole larger.
"[Developing countries] don't see the political will to solve this problem [in Bonn]," said Henschel. They're "hoping to solve it later."