World Rainforest Movement

SinksWatch: An NGO initiative to scrutinize tree plantation carbon sinks projects

As governments at the 7th Conference of the Parties to the climate change convention, COP7, in Marrakesh in 2001, put the final touches on the decision that made carbon sink projects eligible for credits under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a group of NGOs formed SinksWatch, an initiative to track and scrutinize carbon sink projects related to the Kyoto Protocol.

SinksWatch is an initiative of the World Rainforest Movement, hosted by the WRM’s Northern Support Office and implemented by FERN. The aim of SinksWatch is to track and scrutinize carbon sequestration projects related to the Kyoto Protocol, and to highlight their threats to forests and other ecosystems, to forest peoples as well as to the climate. The focus of SinksWatch is on tree plantation sinks projects, particularly in areas where land tenure and land use rights are in dispute.

SinksWatch recognizes that there are important links between forests and climate change and advocates addressing these links in a way that honors the important role forests play in adapting to climate change and in safeguarding against the impacts of extreme weather events without justifying the continued, additional and permanent release of carbon from fossil fuel burning.

Why such an initiative?

The inclusion of sinks projects into the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, will allow the continued and permanent release of carbon from fossil fuels in exchange for temporary storage of carbon in trees. Carbon sink credits thus increase the amount of carbon in the active carbon pool and only shift the pressing need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to future generations.

SinksWatch will scrutinize carbon sink projects, expose the flaws of including carbon sinks under the Kyoto Protocol’s accounting scheme and raise awareness about the consequences of ignoring the crucial differences between carbon stored in fossil fuels and carbon stored in trees:

Carbon in fossil fuels barely interacts with the carbon in the atmosphere. It is locked away ‘safely’ from the active carbon pool and is stored permanently in fossil fuels. The main way that fossil fuel carbon enters the atmosphere is when humans choose to extract and burn fossil fuels. There is no reverse flow back into the fossil fuel carbon pool –at least not in the time scale relevant for the Kyoto Protocol discussions.

Carbon stored in trees, forests and other ecosystems is in constant exchange with carbon in the atmosphere. It is part of the active carbon pool and is frequently released into the atmosphere through fires, insect outbreaks, decomposition, and respiration of plants as well as through logging and clearance for agriculture. Carbon storage in trees is thus only temporary.

Under the Kyoto Protocol accounting scheme, for every tonne of carbon that is stored in a tree, an equivalent tonne of carbon from fossil fuels can be released into the atmosphere. The underlying assumption that ‘carbon is carbon’ ignores the different interactions of these carbon pools with the atmosphere –a crucial difference with regard to climate change. The result is that with every carbon sink credit issued under the CDM, there is an increase of carbon in the active carbon pool –the very pool, which shapes the global climate– even if for some time that overall increase is not apparent because the carbon is temporarily stored in a tree.

Why focus on plantations?

In addition to the underlying flaws of carbon sink credits, the Kyoto Protocol also gives the wrong incentives: the focus is on carbon sequestration, not carbon reservoirs –the faster a tree grows the more credits can be gained. This leads to an incentive for large-scale tree plantations. Examples of this perverse incentive are already evident, with the Plantar project in Brazil being the most obvious example (see WRM Bulletins 65, 66). The negative environmental and social impacts of large-scale tree plantations are well documented. Large-scale industrial tree plantations often generate poverty, increase inequity, can affect food security, deplete water and soil resources, drastically reduce biological diversity, to mention but the most obvious impacts. They are also extremely prone to fires and insect outbreaks, further destabilizing an already insecure carbon store.

SinksWatch believes that planting trees for the purpose of carbon credits and carbon accounting in the Kyoto Protocol will not address the root causes of the global forest crisis. It also is not an effective way to tackle the pressing problem of climate change. On the contrary, carbon sink credits run the risk of exacerbating both the global forest crisis and climate change. SinksWatch will therefore scrutinize projects aiming to gain carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol’s flexible mechanisms, especially the CDM. SinksWatch aims to provide a clearinghouse for information on carbon sink projects related to the Kyoto Protocol and to facilitate co-ordination among those affected by CDM sinks projects. A website with more detailed information about current sinks projects as well as the underlying flaws of carbon sinks will soon be online at SinksWatch works in close collaboration with CDM Watch, an initiative to track non-sink CDM projects. SinksWatch provides regular updates to NGOs working on forest-related issues and aims to support groups and organizations affected by carbon sink projects to effectively challenge these projects.

For more information about SinksWatch please contact Jutta Kill (e-mail:, SinksWatch c/o FERN 1c Fosseway Business Centre, Stratford Road, Moreton-in-Marsh, GL56 9NQ, UK Phone: +44 1608 652 895 Fax: +44 1608 652 878