Sinks and the CDM

Emily Boyd outlines the current political divergence in the debate over the use of forests as sinks under the Kyoto Protocol.

The author is a doctoral student studying land use and the CDM in the School of Development Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich in the United Kingdom.

How forests should feature in the Kyoto Protocol is a highly contested issue in the international climate negotiations. The debate is technically complex topped by a divergent array of political interests. It becomes increasingly apparent that it is not a question of ‘right or wrong,’ but a matter of political judgement.

Non-governmental organizations emphasize arguments regarding land rights and equity, the scientific community is split, the United States and the Umbrella group are in favour of providing strict guidelines, and the European Union has been firmly opposed. The G77 group is also divided, with an informal group of 16 Latin American countries (GRILA) who are pro-carbon sequestration activities in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), opposed by Brazil, India and China.

It is worthwhile disentangling the different positions on the issue, and analyzing what these positions actually represent. The scientific facts regarding the role forests play in the global carbon cycle are not really disputed. It is generally agreed that terrestrial ecosystems absorb carbon dioxide and changes in land use contribute around 20 per cent of global carbon emissions.

The controversy regards governance of global resources and the embedded issues of equity, values and knowledge. It is about the realities of accurately monitoring forest resources and the uncertainties regarding how much carbon dioxide is being stored. It is about who might the real benefactors of CDM schemes be and, just as importantly, what forms of governance are available for common action towards global resource management?

Such was the disagreement that delegates were unable to reach any consensus on the issue of sinks and the Clean Development Mechanism at the Sixth Conference of the Parties (COP-6) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in November 2000.

The use of sinks is not a new area of contention. Reflecting on COP-3 in Kyoto in 1997, Michael Grubb, in The Kyoto Protocol: A Guide and Assessment (RIAA, London, 1999), highlights that the possible role of sinks was the most complex technical issue of the negotiations and also amongst the most controversial. The debate now includes the role of sinks in the CDM.

Referred to as the ‘Kyoto Surprise,’ the CDM is intended to encourage mutually beneficial partnerships between industrialized and developing countries and their respective private sectors. Its stated purpose in the Protocol is to assist non-Annex 1 Parties to achieve sustainable development, contributing to the objectives of the Convention and to assist Annex 1 Parties achieve compliance with their quantified emission limitation and reduction commitments under Article 3.

This Protocol mechanism has provided a number of Parties with the hope that north-south divergences on funding could be narrowed. Similar to the pilot scheme of Activities Implemented Jointly on Joint Implementation between Annex I countries, the CDM is project-based and similarly structured, but does differ in its specific objective of contributing to the sustainable development needs of the South.

A striking feature of the negotiations is the spectrum of positions regarding the role of forests under the Protocol and, in particular, on the inclusion of sinks in the CDM.

If you were to draw a scale along which you represented the different arguments, you would find at one end a cluster totally opposed to the inclusion of sinks, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth International and Fern (a non-governmental organization set up by the World Rainforest Movement to monitor the European Union’s effects on forests).

These groups consider that sinks offer a serious loophole, the risk being that credit might be gained for offsets where there is continuous naturally-occurring absorption and that plantations will end up replacing old-growth forests.

At the opposing end of the spectrum are the pro-sinks advocates, such as the FACE (Forests Absorbing Carbon dioxide Emission) Foundation based in The Netherlands, which is already exploring project certification. Then there are groups that claim progress in dealing with monitoring difficulties.

Some proponents of the inclusion of sinks in the CDM emphasize the sustainable development objectives of the mechanism. Since livelihoods in large parts of the developing world are dependent on forests and land use, it appears logical that land use and forestry activities should be considered. Within the scientific community, groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Centre for International Forestry Research are in favour of exploring forests options under the CDM as potential opportunities for developing countries whose livelihoods are largely dependent on forests and related land use.

The European Union has taken a cautious line on sinks claiming that, under Articles 3 and 4, sinks cannot be adequately defined, delineated, measured and monitored, thus establishing a risk to provide a loophole for countries that cannot meet their domestic emissions targets as set out in the Protocol. The United States claimed it may not be able to reach its political commitment to the Kyoto targets without some provision on sinks both in terms of implementing domestic emissions reductions and within the CDM.

In the closing frenzy of COP-6, it was speculated as to whether the United States would compromise on the exclusion of sinks under the CDM under a deal brokered by John Prescott, the United Kingdom Deputy Prime Minister. In the end, though, no agreement was reached, and, in the post COP-6 talks in Ottawa, Canada, it became apparent that the United States was sticking to its position on including sinks in the CDM.

The G77 group tried to establish a common position on sinks. The informal negotiating group of the 16 Latin American countries (GRILA) is strongly advocating the inclusion of sequestration activities in the Clean Development Mechanism. The group wishes to ensure that the Latin American nations benefit from any new financial incentives to combat deforestation and land-use change in the region. Much of Asia remains unconvinced, particularly India who is more interested in large-scale CDM energy projects. Brazil also is sceptical of the role of carbon sequestration, despite the potential opportunities that Amazonia could draw from financial incentives.

What type of activity might be considered as an appropriate part of Clean Development Mechanism projects?

One particular confusion lies over the types of activities that are considered ‘sinks.’ Article 3 of the Protocol refers to the “...use of sources and removals by sinks resulting from direct human-induced change and forestry activities, limited to afforestation, reforestation and deforestation since 1990.” In short, this is a provision for a short-term cost effective alternative for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The debate on the inclusion of sinks in the CDM has predominantly focused on the risks involved in afforestation and reforestation where large-scale plantations replace natural ecosystems. It is argued that including sinks in the CDM will result in mass exploitation of natural old-growth forests. Those who are advocating sustainable development are keen for afforestation to be manifested as small-scale rural afforestation or agroforestry schemes. These differences of scale need to be made explicit for the sake of accuracy.

Some Parties are advocating sequestration through activities known in climate jargon as ‘avoided deforestation.’ Bolivia is one country that is interested in forest conservation under the CDM and has expressed concern that an exclusive focus on afforestation or energy projects will deny some developing countries benefit from forest activities. There are examples of Activities Implemented Jointly projects based on ‘avoided deforestation’ that deal effectively with the constraints of monitoring deforestation and accessing quality data. These types of activities are successfully being explored at project level, primarily in Latin America.

Viewing the process at this stage, it is clear that many difficulties are the result of the fact that the concept of CDM was created before the rules of the mechanism were staked out. This has lead to the negotiations developing in a ‘back to front’ manner.

Nevertheless, providing the concept of the CDM to the various stakeholders for debate has allowed some very creative thinking to emerge on how to manage global environmental resources in a collaborative manner. Despite setbacks in the formal negotiations, it has opened doors to innovative ways of thinking on how we might go about tackling climate change.  

In fairness, despite the failure to reach a consensus at COP-6 the negotiations were still a step in the right direction and did create momentum. The ‘non-success’ of the negotiations was possibly not such a bad thing as it has allowed space and time, inter alia, for reflection on how the complexities of sinks and the CDM might be resolved.

Before us lie a range of immediate challenges, and a new political environment. Not the least, there is the stance of the new Bush Administration and the impact this is having on the momentum of the climate negotiations.

COP-6 Part 2 will provide the opportunity to determine whether or not land use and forestry activities will be included in the Clean Development Mechanism and, if so, what type of activities will be included. It remains to be seen what progress will be made.

Further information
Emily Boyd, School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK. Email: