Rich nations are pushing to lock in a logging loophole at the United Nations climate talks in Bonn that would give them leeway to increase forest carbon emissions – rather than reduce them – and not pay a price, a group of advocates warned.
Protecting forests is seen as a key way to slow warming in a future global climate pact. But new rules would "significantly" undermine that effort by allowing wealthy states to "hide" hundreds of megatons of increased greenhouse gas emissions from their logging operations, said the Ecosystems Climate Alliance (ECA), a 10-member coalition of forest advocacy groups.
"We need to see these loopholes tossed out in Bonn," said Peg Putt, of the Wilderness Society of Australia.
The Bonn talks, which begin today, are the first major stop for global warming delegates on the road to the Cancun summit, the next UN climate conference in December.
John Ashe, chair of the climate negotiations under the Kyoto Protocol track, told countries they have until June 11, the last day of Bonn, to finalize the forestry and land use portion of the negotiating text.
That call to action is triggering fears of hasty acceptance of the loophole.
"This logging loophole could be locked in," Chris Henschel, a policy manager at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, told SolveClimate. "It’s a real bloc that’s pushing it."
Indeed, some of the world’s largest logging nations, including Austria, Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, New Zealand and Sweden, are behind the effort. Still, it’s not a done deal yet.
According to Henschel, the UN talks could plug the loophole by adopting a broad but targeted goal of reducing emissions in the forestry sector in all developed countries. "It’s a better way … than to try to argue with the textual negotiators."
Henschel, who also chairs the forestry group of the Climate Action Network (CAN), a coalition of around 500 non-profit organizations, said the forest negotiations are "run by the technocrats" and are "not well understood on a political level."
The suggested goal, he said, would be unambiguous and should end the lingering debate. Getting it in the final UN climate text, however, may be months off — if it happens at all. As for Bonn, the only hope is to buy time to close the loophole.
"The only way we’re going to fix this is if the rules don’t get finalized," said Henschel.
A Forestry Loophole is Born
The emissions accounting loophole was part of a new set of forestry rules added last year to the negotiating text under the Kyoto Protocol track of negotiations.
The 1997 treaty requires participating wealthy states to cut their greenhouse gas pollution, but on a voluntary basis. The same goes for the forestry section of the agreement, known as "Land Use, Land Use Change, and Forestry," or LULUCF.
The new rules would make accounting of forest emissions for rich nations legally binding after 2012, when the Kyoto treaty’s first commitment period ends.
"[The rules] look on the surface like an improvement," said Henschel, but they’re not, he added. "What [countries are] also doing is proposing that they should all be allowed to increase their emissions from forestry – and not have to account for it."
The rules do that by establishing a baseline year for cutting emissions from forestry in the future, not in the past. That would allow logging giants to carry on business-and-usual and boost carbon output for several years, and then measure compliance against this elevated future level.
The accounting maneuver stands in contrast to the broader UN climate negotiations. While different countries have pledged various baselines in the overall talks, they are all based on a past year. The U.S., for instance has pledged to cut emissions by 17 percent by 2020 below 2005 levels, while the EU has established a carbon-reduction goal of 20 percent by 2020 below 1990 levels.
Henschel said rich countries are "taking [emissions accounting on forests] to a ridiculous point." David Turnbull, director of CAN, agreed that the "forward-looking baseline," as it’s called, is "quite problematic."
It’s a way "for countries to be able to get out of their emissions-reduction pledges, which… are not ambitious enough in the first place," Turnbull said in a press conference last week.
According to an analysis by CAN, the aggregate effect of the loophole would be a 400-megaton boost in carbon dioxide emissions annually. "No one will face penalties," said Henschel, adding that the loophole would render the forestry agreement for developed countries "worse than meaningless."
For Alistair Graham, global affairs advisor for the Australia-based Humane Society International, "the sad part about all of this is that forests could be part of the solution, rather than a thorn in the side of the negotiations."
According to UN figures, clearing forests for farming, ranching and other uses is responsible for around 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Forestry advocates have pledged action on the loophole in Bonn.
"We’ll be lobbying heads of delegation of both developed and developing countries to try to alert them to the seriousness of this problem and the need for a political fix to it," said Henschel.
After the Bonn talks, Henschel said they will campaign domestically back in various countries, including in the U.S., even though it is not part of the Kyoto Protocol.
Not Just a Kyoto Protocol Issue Anymore
Henschel said that Washington has "kept a low profile" on the loophole issue "because it didn’t apply to them." He suggested that could change.
Negotiations under the "long-term cooperative action" (LCA) track – which, unlike the Kyoto Protocol track, includes the U.S. – now makes reference to LULUCF for the first time. That mention was inserted into the text at the Copenhagen climate talks last December.
It means the U.S. could be affected by the new forestry rules. And advocates are gearing up to sway the nation to fight for stricter carbon accounting.
"The U.S. is one of the countries we’re hoping would be able to come forward with a rational goal to reduce emissions from this sector," said Henschel.
If Washington doesn’t come through, though, Henschel said he is confident that advocacy groups will find at lease one nation to push for adoption of clear legal language to ensure that forest emissions are not allowed to increase.
"I’m fairly optimistic that we can get some country – it’s not clear yet who it will be – to come forward and put this goal on the table that will fix this problem," he said.