Agricultural activities loophole could turn Kyoto Protocol on its head

Potential loopholes in the Kyoto Protocol could allow the US to profit from the treaty by selling surplus carbon emissions credits to other industrial nations, an Australian environmentalist has warned. He adds that moves to exploit the loophole could lead to the treaty's collapse.


The executive director of the Australian Institute, an independent public policy research centre, has warned that moves to broaden the definition of carbon sinks to include so-called ‘additional agricultural activities’ could enable some industrial and developing nations to meet their carbon emissions targets by adopting agricultural practices that some scientists believe release less CO2 into the atmosphere.
“This is the mother of all loopholes,” Dr Hamilton told edie. “If these loopholes were exploited to the maximum in Annex I countries alone, the carbon storage potential is so great that it would completely account for the net emissions reductions required of industrial countries under the Protocol. In other words, industrial countries could be absolved of any need to reduce their fossil fuel emissions.”
“In addition, some countries will be able to exploit these ‘additional activities’ more readily than others. The US and Canada, which are both well placed to take advantage, could even end up selling their emissions credits to other countries, and making money out of the Kyoto Protocol.
“This raises the question of whether it is worth pursuing the Kyoto Protocol at all. In November, at the COP 6 meeting in the Hague, environmentalists may well be arguing that we might as well tear it up and start again.”
Article 3.4 of the Kyoto Protocol refers to emissions from ‘additional activities’. These activities refer to a number of low C02 emitting farming methods, such as ‘conservation tillage’ – which releases less carbon by ploughing less deeply – changes to crop rotation and other growing practices.
Under the Protocol, industrialised countries must reduce their emissions by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels, although Australia extracted a special deal that allows it to increase emissions by 8% by around 2010.
Dr Hamilton says there is uncertainty about the effect these changes would have on the carbon cycle, but, he says, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed that the potential for carbon storage is huge. In addition, a recent US coal industry report has calculated that the soil carbon pool is 4.2 times the entire atmospheric pool, and 5.7 times the biotic pool. The report claims that a climate change policy could be implemented that would work by storing carbon in soil.
Australia hopes to establish an international coalition of countries that favour the inclusion of the ‘additional activities’ under the definition of carbon sinks at COP6 in November.
However, an international ministerial meeting in Perth this week to discus the issue ended in indecision, Dr Hamilton said.
Australia had invited those countries most likely to join the proposed coalition – a mixture of Annex I and II countries including the US, UK, France, Russia, Canada, Japan, South Africa, Egypt, Uganda and some Asian and South American countries.
Germany, one of the countries most opposed to the idea of using sinks to meet carbon emissions targets wasn’t invited to the conference, according to Dr Hamilton.
However, the conference was inconclusive. “There was a wide diversity of views, but no clear outcome,” according to Dr Hamilton, “so it’s fair to conclude that Australia is finding it difficult to form a coalition of parties around the issue.There was also a degree of lack of understanding about the technicalities of the Protocol and about the science of sinks.”
Dr Hamilton also said that the Australian Environment Minister Richard Hill had appeared to soften his attitude to the Protocol after the meeting, saying that Australia would not necessarily abandon the Kyoto Protocol if its demands were not met.

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