At this week's global climate talks, some rich nations are prepared to urge more lenient accounting practices to hide a portion of their fossil fuel carbon emissions using their trees, environmentalists say.
The problem arises as Kyoto Protocol-signing nations now seek to change the rules governing how they gauge their large forest carbon stocks, a complicated issue that has stalled wide-ranging climate talks in the past.
Forests are a major portion of the world's carbon stores. Yet timber harvests and other land management practices can dump that carbon back into the atmosphere. On balance, however, industrialized nations' emissions ledgers have benefited from the carbon sequestered in their forests. Generally, these lands are net sinks that are subtracted from their overall greenhouse gas output.
The importance of sinks can be substantial. Forest and land-use carbon crediting, for example, reduces the United States' total 2005 emissions by 15 percent, according to a report by the World Resources Institute (WRI). But forests can also be unpredictable. Erratic wildfire seasons have made Canada's forests either net emissions sources or carbon sinks, depending on the year.
At ongoing talks in Copenhagen, whether and how forest and land credits are included in an ultimate agreement remains a significant obstacle in the negotiations, experts say. The goal is to nail down the rules before world leaders are pressed to agree to overall targets and baselines next week.
Environmentalists are worried that some developed nations, including several heavily forested E.U. nations, Canada, Russia and New Zealand, will succeed in various attempts to secure favorable rules that leave potential for gaming the system. The proposals deal with everything from how to count carbon from croplands, soils and tree plantations to whether countries should be held accountable for their forest fires.
Potential to undermine completed pact
"The proposals are, right now, so full of potential loopholes that they threaten to undermine a significant part of what gets agreed to at Copenhagen," said Jeff Fiedler, a senior policy adviser with the Nature Conservancy, an influential conservation group.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that one of these provisions being pushed by Austria, Finland and Sweden could result in an agreement that ignores 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year -- the equivalent of Japan's total emissions.
There is a lot at stake in this relatively low-profile issue. Favorable forest accounting rules give developed nations more room to meet their climate pledges or added leeway to commit to more aggressive overall targets, said Ned Helme, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy.
Conservation groups that want to see strong incentives for forest and habitat preservation within a global climate deal also fear a backlash from developing nations.
If forested developed nations overreach in molding land accounting rules in their favor, other negotiators may seek the blunt tool of capping the total number of forest credits allowed onto the emissions books -- an outcome that would artificially limit conservation incentives.
Bad will could also bleed into parallel discussions on reducing tropical deforestation in developing nations, known by the acronym REDD, said Jason Funk, a forest policy expert at the Environmental Defense Fund.
A showstopper in the past
Climate talks have collapsed in the past due to the thorny issue of carbon sink accounting. In 2000, when the sixth conference of parties met at The Hague, Netherlands, Europe balked at a U.S. play to hide its fossil fuel emissions in its trees.
This time around, negotiators had wanted to complete the rules early to avoid a repeat episode, but at this late stage, there are still outstanding issues, said Funk.
Canada -- home to wide swaths of boreal forests that suck up carbon from the atmosphere -- is one country with a lot at stake in how the rules are shaped.
Forest carbon sinks could allow Canada to meet its climate pledge while still emitting 12 percent more greenhouse gases than it did in 1990, according to the WRI report. Without those sinks, they would be bound to emit 3 percent less than 1990 levels.
In talks at Copenhagen, Canada wants to secure rules to count carbon stored in harvested lumber and other wood products. It also wants to make sure it is not penalized for natural carbon releases over which it has little control.
As more trees die due to increasing forest fires and bark beetle infestations -- phenomena whose spread is tied to climate change -- they argue it is unfair to include these emissions.
Creative forest accounting gives new 'flexibility'
This, they propose, could be addressed by changing the accounting rules. Greenhouse gas accounting rules typically gauge emissions reductions against a baseline tied to a historic year -- say, 1990 or 2005, or any other consistent time frame.
Canada, along with forested nations in the European Union and others, now instead want to measure their forest carbon emissions and sinks against a projected "business as usual" future that would occur without climate policies in place.
Fiedler noted that these tactics would be considered outrageous if applied to the fossil fuel sector.
"Imagine if the U.S. went to Copenhagen and said, 'We're planning on expanding our interstate system, and there will be a lot more driving, and they are all going to be driving SUVs,'" he explained. Such a reference point would give the United States a lot more wiggle room to meet its carbon reduction pledges than if the pledges were measured against concrete historical data.
This, Fiedler said, is what is happening with forest and land-use related emissions. "It basically wishes them away," he said.
Micheline Joanisse, a spokeswoman for Canada's natural resources department, said using projected baselines allows "flexibility in dealing with uncertainties, irregularities and the impacts of natural disturbances on carbon levels."
Furthermore, she said, its proposals would still require that Canada take additional actions to either reduce emissions or increase carbon sinks in forests to earn credits. "They would provide an incentive for all countries to manage their forest to reduce emissions and increase [carbon] removals, which is beneficial to the climate," she said.