Published on Thursday, November 16, 2000 by the Associated Press
US Plan For 'Emission Credits' Blasted At UN Climate Treaty Talks
THE HAGUE -- A U.S. proposal to grant emissions credits for programs to expand or protect pollution-absorbing forests and crops drew stiff resistance Wednesday at a U.N. conference on curbing global warming.

European delegates and environmentalists predicted that "sinks" may be the most critical issue to be resolved during the two-week climate conference, which seeks agreements on programs to cut emissions of greenhouse gases over the next 12 years.

"Sinks" is the term used to describe plants, soil and trees that absorb airborne carbon, thus reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

The U.S. has proposed that countries be allowed to accrue emissions credits for sinks, counting them against the amount of greenhouse gases they are committed to reduce under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. For the U.S., sinks would cover half its target of cutting emissions by 7% from 1990 levels by the year 2012.

U.S. officials said they were seeking to include not only new forestation projects, but also to earn credit for preserving existing vegetation.

That would involve little more than fencing off forests and calculating how much carbon they absorb, officials acknowledged. The amount would then be subtracted from the emissions output, even though there is no actual cut in emissions.

Delegates from the European Union said they would stand firm against the proposal.

Anders Turessou of Sweden said many industrialized countries have such extensive vegetation they could "hide completely their commitments by using sinks."

With its vast pine forests, Sweden could meet one-third of its reduction commitment without doing anything, he said.

U.S. officials said they will seek a five year phase-in of sinks between 2008 and 2012, during which they want partial credit for their carbon-absorbing projects.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, industrialized countries will reduce the total output of heat-trapping gases by an average 5.2% between 2008-2012 compared with 1900 levels. Most of the details on how countries should do that were left undecided.

The protocol would allow credit for new forestation but not for existing vegetation or new farming techniques.

"The U.S. proposal makes a farce of the Kyoto Protocol," said World Wildlife Fund spokeswoman Jennifer Morgan. "It gives them a license that makes them look green on paper. It is in fact rewriting the Kyoto Protocol."

The problem with using forests for carbon dioxide absorption is that they are not permanent, she said. If trees are cut or burned, the carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

But not all environmentalists agree that sinks have no value.

The Washington-based Nature Conservancy has overseen a deal in Bolivia in which foreign companies bought the logging rights to 1.5 million acres for $10 million. The forest will be attached to an adjacent national park, and the companies expect to share credits of 7 million tons of carbon emissions.

"Forests have an economic value," said spokesman Douglas Meyer. "If you can give carbon a higher value than logging, someone will pay you to keep your forest intact."

Robert Bonnie of the Environmental Defense Group said counting sinks also could give farmers new incentives to grow environmentally friendly crops.

"This could be the theme that takes negotiators into the early hours next week," said Bonnie.

The U.S. contributes one-quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions, with output jumping 11% in the past decade. Government forecasts say the U.S. will need to reduce emissions by a third if they are to meet the Kyoto target.

Copyright 2000 Associated Press