Climate Talks and "Ecosystem Carbon"

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By Steve Zwick

Halfway through the UN Climate Change Talks that filled the first two weeks of June in Bonn, Germany, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released a report entitled The Natural Fix: the role of ecosystems in climate mitigation, available both in the form of a PDF and an online interactive e-book. The document not only highlights the importance of managing "carbon in biological systems" (tropical forests, wetlands, peatlands, and farms), but also must be one of the most accessible introductions to the science of atmospheric carbon in existence.

By the time the talks ended on Friday, negotiators had loaded the negotiating text for the post-Kyoto global climate change treaty with an amalgamation of nearly 200 wish lists. As a result, the merely contradictory and confusing 53-page document has bloated to an incomprehensible and completely irrational 200 pages.


Proliferation then Pruning

The document's bloating is by design – for once the next round of talks begins in August, few if any additions will be allowed into the text. From that point on, negotiators will be hammering away at each other's insertions in an effort to keep what they can agree on and discard what they can't.

One area where all sides have clearly identified areas of disagreement is in how to account for reductions in greenhouse gasses through changes in agriculture, forestry, and other land uses (AFOLU).

We'll be following up with participants over the next week or so, and posting a detailed analysis either late next week or early the week after, but it's possible to outline the broad areas of disagreement here.


What Counts – and Who Decides: the Great Divide

Broadly speaking, developing countries mostly want to tweak the existing Kyoto Protocol and extend it, while developed countries mostly want to scrap it and start with something fresh. That's because developing countries mostly feel they have more to gain by keeping the existing structure intact, while developed countries mostly feel they have more to gain by keeping only bits and pieces of the current protocol.

Developing countries, for example, really like the Kyoto framework that exempts them from mandatory caps. In Bali, they responded to calls for them to take on new obligations by proposing to undertake "nationally appropriate mitigation actions" (NAMAs), which are to be tied into sustainable development and capacity-building. Developing countries can initiate NAMAs on their own, or they can be undertaken with funding from the developed world and may include offsets. The Center for Clean Air Policy conducted an excellent side event that shed as much light as anything else on this subject. You can view it here if you have RealPlayer, and we will be examining this issue in more detail on Ecosystem Marketplace.

Developed countries, on the other hand, point out that many countries categorized as "developing" actually have higher GDPs and higher rates of growth than many countries categorized as "developed", and have been pushing for these countries to take on grown-up reduction targets. These same developing countries, on the other hand, really like certain elements of the protocol – such as those that that let them pick and choose which types of AFALU changes they will account for and which they will ignore.

Yes, you've read that right: under the current Kyoto Protocol, developed countries like Germany can get credits for sustainable land use that captures carbon, but instead of measuring the entire amount of carbon either captured or emitted through the country's total land-use practices, they can decide which land-use activities they want to measure and which they want to ignore.

It's a sticky issue, especially because payments for reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) in developing countries don't offer any such outs, and because developing countries can't yet get payments for other land use beyond forestry.

As a result, developing countries are demanding more accountability on AFOLU in the developed world, while developed countries are demanding some sort of commitment from developing countries.


A Reduction by Any Other NAMA

The emergence of NAMAs as a compromise has raised a whole new set of questions. The Philippines, speaking on behalf of the G-77 + China, is pushing for NAMAs to be something done above and beyond global reduction targets, while others have suggested categorizing REDD offsets as a NAMA. That suggestion has run into stiff resistance from developing world negotiators, who say re-categorizing REDD at this late stage – especially by putting it into a category that doesn't fully exist yet – could complicate the process even further and make it even less likely that agreement on REDD offsets will be reached in Copenhagen.

That likelihood, by the way, is looking less and less certain – no one we spoke to in Bonn expects a final accord in Copenhagen. Instead, most negotiators expect broad agreement in principle with a six-month extension for final agreement.