CANCUN, MEXICO -- An arcane accounting rule governing emissions from logging forests that is now being negotiated at Cancun climate talks is threatening to put the integrity of a future global-warming deal at risk, environmental groups said in a new analysis.
The groups urged UN negotiators to shut the so-called loophole for good during the Nov 29-Dec. 10 talks.
The incentive would allow rich nations to ramp up logging without accounting for the greenhouse gases that result, in effect hiding emissions increases. It takes the form of a proposed revision of the land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) rules under the Kyoto Protocol.
"At the moment they're cheating so badly on the LULUCF that it's almost a joke," said Melanie Coath, senior climate change policy officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, one of the groups behind the research. "What we need are incentives for developed countries to reduce their current logging emissions, not increase them with impunity."
The new analysis is the first to quantify the loophole's impact on rich states, or Annex I nations. It claims the incentive would severely undermine countries' pledged emissions curbs, most notably Norway, Russia, Australia, Japan, Switzerland, the EU and New Zealand.
"The crazy one is New Zealand," Chris Henschel, policy manager at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, another group involved, told SolveClimate News.
New Zealand aims to slash emissions across its economy by 10 to 20 percent by 2020. But the LULUCF loophole would allow the logging giant to cut down more trees and keep the emissions rise off the books.
The result would be a 45 percent increase in New Zealand's emissions, instead of a reduction, the analysis said.
Nearly every Annex I nation backs the loophole, though none would benefit as much as New Zealand.
Norway's plan to cut emissions between 30 and 40 percent, for instance, would end up being closer to 22 to 32 percent, according to the analysis. Russia's 15 to 25 percent target would turn into a 9.5 to 19.5 percent reduction, while Australia's 5 to 15 percent goal would shrink to 1 to 11 percent.
Known as the "reference level" approach, the loophole lets states increase forestry emissions for years, and then measure compliance against this elevated future amount.
The approach is rare in UN climate negotiations. While different countries have pledged various baselines in the overall talks, they are all based on a past year, not a future level that each nation gets to pick for itself.
"Politically, there's a big attraction," Henschel said, especially for the EU, which often struggles to reach consensus on issues. The European bloc proposed the loophole last year.
"If everyone gets to pick what they want, it works for everyone," he added.
In total, the loophole would account for some 450 megatons of climate-changing emissions each year, according to the Climate Action Network (CAN), a coalition of more than 500 organizations. That's equivalent to about 75 percent of Canada's total yearly emissions, or five percent of the global total.
Clearing forests is responsible for 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to UN estimates. Managing the sector is seen as a critical component of a future global warming deal.
Africa Group, Tuvalu Protest
Negotiators are expected to finalize the rules on LULUCF in Cancun, where leaders hope to hammer out key elements of a new agreement to slow global warming.
The "logging loophole" has emerged as a sticking point between rich and poor nations. While many observers say it's likely to get locked in for implementation in 2012, Henschel believes "it's definitely not a done deal."
At the close of the last negotiating session in Tianjin, China, the Africa group of countries and the Pacific island of Tuvalu, on behalf of other island states, sternly called on countries to plug the loophole.
Brian Mantlana, director of climate change at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, who works with the Africa group, told SolveClimate News that he believes rich nations are planning to use LULUCF intentionally "to miss their targets."
"We are unhappy with the option of using reference levels alone," Mantlana said.
The Africa Group is calling for more transparency. Mantlana said it is floating a new proposal in Cancun that would force countries to "show us to what extent they are deviating from the historical trend" in their emissions. The goal, he said, is "to enhance environmental integrity in the construction of reference levels."
So far the plan has "received ambivalence,” Mantlana said. "We knew it was not going to be warmly embraced. But there are parties that are thinking about it."
Earlier in the year, Tuvalu presented a proposal — a political longshot, observers say — that would force Annex I states to make absolute reductions in their emissions.
Ian Frye, Tuvalu's negotiator, told SolveClimate News that Tuvalu is committed to "trying to close off all the loopholes" during the Cancun talks.