World Rainforest Movement

Compensating for emissions through carbon sinks: a cheat’s charter

In WRM bulletin 35 we exposed the conflict of interest among some of the experts who produced the IPCC special report on land use, land use change and forestry last June (“Sinks that stink”), resulting from their direct involvement in companies which would economically benefit from the inclusion of sinks in the Kyoto Protocol. One of the named experts –Richard Tipper– replies in the current issue of Multinational Monitor magazine that “you could say all scientists have vested interests when they participate in such a panel because they’re interested in advancement or research money” and adds: “if you disagree with somebody then you should be able to make a coherent argument, not just slag people off.”

We believe that most scientists would disagree with Mr. Tipper’s view about participation in expert panels. We also believe that people with vested interests should not accept appointments to expert panels whose findings might economically benefit them. Nor should they be invited to participate in them.

Regarding Mr. Tipper’s reference about “slagging people off”, it is important to remember that the World Rainforest Movement has been disseminating not one but a number of “coherent arguments” against plantations as carbon sinks for more than a year — all of which Mr. Tipper seems to ignore (see all relevant WRM materials in our web site at: ). Perhaps he feels we are not sufficiently “scientific” for our arguments to be taken into account. However, it will be difficult for him to say the same about the scientists from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria.

IIASA carried out a detailed study of Russia’s biosphere,which contains a fifth of the world’s forests. The full report, announced on 25 August in a news release under the suggestive heading “Is the Kyoto Protocol Workable?” puts in question the whole idea of using carbon sinks as a means of “compensating” for CO2 emissions. Anatoly Shvidenko, one of the scientists involved in the study, stated that under the Kyoto Protocol, Russia is likely to be able to claim credit for improving its biosphere’s ability to soak up carbon, but that the uncertainties involved in calculating such credits are huge and “greatly exceed likely changes in industrial emissions.” In plain English, that means that including trees in the Kyoto Protocol is a recipe for confusion and cheating.

Sten Nilsson, also from IIASA, concluded that “the scientific uncertainties in measuring carbon movements into and out of ecosystems are just too great,” and that “by opening up the whole of the biosphere to actions under the Kyoto Protocol, governments have made it completely unverifiable.” IIASA’s Michael Obersteiner summarized the whole issue by saying that the Protocol “really is a cheat’s charter.”

Asked to comment on the IIASA report, A US analyst of the Kyoto Protocol, David Victor, working at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, concurred with its findings. “Their analysis is fundamentally correct. It is essentially impossible to verify compliance if the targets include forests,” Victor said.

After analysing the IIASA report and other relevant information and viewpoints, “New Scientist” journalist Fred Pearce reaches the conclusion that “the message from the IIASA seems clear. Science is not yet up to policing a system of greenhouse gas targets that includes the biosphere. Until it is, the only viable Kyoto Protocol is one that relies solely on slashing the world’s use of fossil fuels.” With which we totally agree.


The scientific upshot of the recent report is explained in Fred Pearce, “Smokescreen Exposed” New Scientist magazine, 26 August 2000, vol 167, issue 2253; see also Larry Lohmann “Is Tree Planting a Practicable Way of Meeting Kyoto Targets?”, Multinational Monitor (forthcoming).