Accounting for changes in sinks


in Economics, Politics, The environment

It is highly likely that any successor to the Kyoto Protocol negotiated in the next couple of years will include targets based on emissions produced directly by human activities. That means any emissions associated with melting permafrosts, accelerated decay in peatlands, or dried out forests would not be included in the overall total. This is pretty worrisome, given that the climate doesn’t care about the origin of emissions. We could conceivably meet out target for anthropogenic emissions while nonetheless putting far more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than would be wise.

At the same time, it wouldn’t be fair to penalize only the country where the second-order emissions get produced. If the Amazon dries out due to climate change, it is not entirely or even mostly the fault of Brazil. The fairest course of action seems to be:

  1. Come up with a hard global target for both direct human emissions and those induced by climate change itself.
  2. Assign the direct emissions to the states producing them.
  3. Divide up the secondary emissions and assign them to each country according to their total historical contribution to climate change.

That means if Canada has emitted about 2% of all the anthropogenic greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, we would be responsible for 2% of induced emissions coming out of the permafrost in Canada and Siberia, the drying of the Amazon, etc. That way, the polluter is paying, albeit belatedly, and the focus remains the actual amount of greenhouse gas entering the atmosphere, which is the critical determinant in what will happen to the climate.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon October 16, 2008 at 2:04 pm

In an ideal world, the global costs of climate change adaptation would also be split up on the basis of historical emissions.

Of course, rich states will never accept that.

. January 22, 2009 at 4:53 pm

Study: Global warming decimating old-growth forests at stunning rate

Globe and Mail Update
January 22, 2009 at 4:47 PM EST

CALGARY — The death of old-growth forests in the western United States and Canada is increasing at a stunning rate, a troubling trend linked directly to global warming that could soon transform forests into carbon dioxide emitters rather than much-needed carbon sinks, a new study warns.

. November 18, 2009 at 1:37 pm

Nature Geoscience (17 November 2009) | doi:10.1038/ngeo689

Trends in the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide

Efforts to control climate change require the stabilization of atmospheric CO2 concentrations. This can only be achieved through a drastic reduction of global CO2 emissions. Yet fossil fuel emissions increased by 29% between 2000 and 2008, in conjunction with increased contributions from emerging economies, from the production and international trade of goods and services, and from the use of coal as a fuel source. In contrast, emissions from land-use changes were nearly constant. Between 1959 and 2008, 43% of each year’s CO2 emissions remained in the atmosphere on average; the rest was absorbed by carbon sinks on land and in the oceans. In the past 50 years, the fraction of CO2 emissions that remains in the atmosphere each year has likely increased, from about 40% to 45%, and models suggest that this trend was caused by a decrease in the uptake of CO2 by the carbon sinks in response to climate change and variability. Changes in the CO2 sinks are highly uncertain, but they could have a significant influence on future atmospheric CO2 levels. It is therefore crucial to reduce the uncertainties.

. June 18, 2010 at 4:51 pm

“A second loophole concerns emissions from forests in rich nations such as Canada, Austria and Finland, which could allow an extra 200 to 400 million tonnes of CO2 a year to be emitted. According to John Lanchbery of BirdLife International, a long-time observer of climate talks, the negotiators in Bonn put little effort into eliminating this loophole. Several countries said that if they were held to account for their forests, they would cut their emissions pledges.”

. July 1, 2010 at 2:01 pm

“WHY”, asked a Chinese negotiator, “is this working-group facing so much difficulty in showing a minimal semblance of being alive?” It was a fair question at the end of two weeks of climate discussions in Bonn. The talks led to some progress in some areas, but bogged down in almost all others. There is a moment in such negotiations when you come up against a nagging problem: many countries that are committed to act on climate change will seek to avoid really doing so for at least as long as other parties are under no such commitment—if not longer.

Other questions are even less tractable. Whose money, and how much, might flow through the new conduits for finance, which have yet to be established? What sort of commitments, if any, will the various less developed countries make in return for some of that money? The LCA’s sister negotiations, the Kyoto protocol (KP) track, show how much more vexed things get when commitments actually look as if they might cost money. Two technical problems bedevil the KP track. One is “land use, land-use change and forestry”, known to its friends as LULUCF. It could become a loophole for wriggling out of emission cuts—if, among other things, the baselines for forests are set too low, or if the rules allow the growth of a forest to be counted as a credit while its later felling does not constitute a debit.

The other problem is “hot air”, meaning the emission credits that have accrued to countries, such as Russia, that have seen their emissions fall below the Kyoto baseline year of 1990 simply because of economic contraction. Like a lax attitude to LULUCF, hot-air credits could allow developed countries that have pledged “emissions cuts” under the Copenhagen accord to meet those commitments without actually cutting emissions by much. According to analysis by the Dutch environmental-assessment agency, pledges which under one set of hot air and LULUCF rules would require a 12% cut on 1990 levels, would demand only a 4% reduction under a different set of rules. These are the sort of things that matter at negotiations—and on which they founder.

. June 7, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Forest conservation
How to tell if countries are cheating on their conservation commitments

IN AN isolated forest in the Sivalik hills of south-western Nepal, intense sun beats down through the treetops. A sweaty trek up a steep, rocky slope leads to a spot where a team of researchers is busy measuring the trees.

They are working for Forest Resource Assessment Nepal, a joint venture between the Nepalese and Finnish governments. Two global-positioning-system devices guide the researchers to their target. Once there, they use tape measures, callipers and a hand-held laser to measure the heights and girths of all the trees within a 500-square-metre plot. These measurements, and each tree’s species, are recorded on a clipboard. One plot finished; 959 more to go.

A classic piece of forestry, then. Boots on the ground. Specimens duly counted. But this is a study with a twist, for its purpose is to calibrate a new approach to the subject—one that will gather information by the bucketload without the need to rely on quite so many boots. This new approach uses a technique called lidar.

. June 22, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Planting trees ‘no magic bullet’ for global warming, study finds
‘Afforestation’ does little to cool planet, especially in northern climates
Margaret Munro, Postmedia News

Planting trees may help appease travellers’ guilt about pumping carbon into the atmosphere.

But new research suggests it will do little to cool the planet, especially when trees are planted in Canada and other northern countries, says climatologist Alvaro Montenegro, at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.

“There is no magic bullet” for global warming, says Montenegro, “and trees are certainly not going to be providing it.”

He assessed the impact of replanting forests on crop and marginal lands with Environment Canada researcher Vivek Arora. Their study, published Sunday in Nature Geoscience, concludes “afforestation is not a substitute for reduced greenhouse-gas emissions.”

The United Nations, environmental groups and carbon-offset companies are invested heavily in the idea that planting trees will help slow climate change and global warming. International authorities have long described “afforestation” as a key climate-change mitigation strategy.

But the study says the benefits of tree planting are “marginal” when it comes to stopping the planet from overheating.

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