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Flames consume huge areas of forest in Vale Alto, Portugal. Portugal has declared a national disaster after the worst forest fires in more than two decades killed nine people, torched thousands of hectares of forest and destroyed homes.

Kyoto - possible pitfalls

Although it is the only international agreement which limits the emissions that cause climate change, the Kyoto Protocol is far from perfect, and contains potential loopholes. Over the years of negotiations, many of these have been closed or restricted, but enough remain to undermine the effectiveness of the agreement if the international community is not vigilant.

The Kyoto trading mechanisms rely on a robust and, ideally,'leak-proof' architecture including national accounting systems and asystem of international controls to ensure that the actual overallemissions reduction targets are achieved. The Clean DevelopmentMechanism (CDM) to some extent lies outside this architecture as itdepends on ensuring that projects in developing countries reduceemissions below a hypothetical baseline, 'what would have happenedwithout the project'. Unlike trading and Joint Implementation (JI), italso permits Annex B Parties (industrialized countries) to increasetheir overall allowed emissions because of the 'credits' earned fromthe reductions in developing countries.

Theseproblems mean there is an acute need to ensure that projectmethodologies for the CDM are watertight and achieve real climatebenefits. Much of the wrangling over the past seven years has been overmaintaining the integrity of this architecture. The result is less thanperfect, but overall provides a solid basis upon which future progresscan be built. Its greatest weakness is the mixing of fossil carbonemissions and organic carbon stocks, generating credits from so called'carbon sinks', which result in more fossil carbon being introducedinto the biosphere in the name of emissions reductions.   

The trouble with 'sinks'

Underthe terms of the Kyoto Protocol certain changes to land use andforestry activities that can sequester carbon can be counted towardmeeting emissions reduction obligations under the Protocol. The theoryis that if a ton of carbon is stored in a tree (a so called 'sink' forcarbon) and hence removed from the atmosphere, then a country would beallowed to add a ton of carbon to its allowed emissions from burningfossil fuels.

This whole theory - that creating 'sinks' inforests, plants and soils, whereby carbon dioxide is taken out of theclimate system to offset higher fossil fuel emissions - is quitewrong.  Unfortunately, carbon stored in trees is not permanentlyremoved from the atmosphere and there is a high probability that theton of carbon counted as stored in the tree will find its way back intothe atmosphere eventually. The result of this is that the burden ofreducing emissions is simply shifted to future generations.

Themain point, however, is that the use of sinks must not divert anypolitical or financial resources away from the primary task: reducingemissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Really, sinks do not even"buy us time", as some have argued.  If the industrializedcountries do not achieve major emission reductions in the near term, wemay lose our ability to avoid dangerous climate change, by anyone'sdefinition.

The goal of the Kyoto Protocol is to reduceemissions, not to create mechanisms for avoiding reductions. Therefore,Greenpeace seeks to minimize the use of sinks in the Protocol as muchas possible, and we note that a number of countries have alreadypledged they will not take advantage of this loophole at all.

Weall need to work together in order to keep our governmentshonest.  There is always pressure from the fossil fuel industry to"take the easy way out" by reducing emissions on paper only. While this might work well for the fossil fuel industry's short-termprofits, it would spell disaster in the longer run.  Find our howyou can help on our Take Action page.

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