In the run-up to the next international climate change talks, two more reports warn against focusing on sinks

In the run-up to the new round of international climate change talks in Bonn, Germany, and following recent research questioning the validity of using carbon sinks, two further reports are warning against focusing too much effort on discussions on using trees and soil to sequester carbon dioxide.

The talks are a resumption of the sixth session of the Conference to the Parties of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, which was suspended in November following two weeks of intensive negotiations in The Hague in which political leaders were unable to reach an agreement regarding reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases, and will resume on Thursday 19 July. However, a report by the UK-based Royal Sociey, The Role of Land Carbon Sinks in Mitigating Climate Change, is warning of the dangers of spending too much time discussing the use of forests and soils for absorbing carbon dioxide.

“We do not fully understand the processes that control how much carbon dioxide is absorbed by vegetation and soils acting as land carbon sinks,” said Professor David Read, Chair of the Royal Society working group that prepared the report. “Furthermore, we need more reliable methods of quantifying and verifying the contribution of sinks towards targets set by the Kyoto Protocol.”

Carbon sinks may help to reduce greenhouse gas levels in the short term, but over a longer time-scale some climate calculations are saying that they may become net sources of carbon dioxide as average global temperatures increase, says Read. “Therefore, it is vital that countries should not attempt to use land carbon sinks as a justification for diverting financial and political resources away from long-term solutions that involve reducing the use of fossil fuels.”

The Royal Society report warns that in order to increase the uptake of carbon dioxide, agricultural and forestry industries may introduce practices such as large-scale use of nitrogen-based fertilisers, which may actually increase climate change by releasing other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide. The report also points out that the maximum amount of carbon dioxide that might be removed from the atmosphere through such practices would only be equivalent to a quarter of the cuts required to stave off the increases in global temperatures.

The second report, released by two Canadian organisations: the environmental group, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the West coast environmental law association, agrees with the Royal Society. “If not properly designed, the sinks provisions of the Kyoto Protocol could create loopholes that increase greenhouse gas pollution,” said Chris Rolfe, a lawyer with the West Coast Environmental Law Association. “For example, the Canadian government wants credit for all the carbon dioxide absorbed by our growing forests, But our forests will absorb that carbon dioxide with or without the Kyoto Protocol. Allowing countries to emit more simply because of the natural growth of forests will increase greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere, while not changing the amount absorbed from the atmosphere by trees.”

Two climate change research projects published in May revealed serious flaws in the use of soils and vegetation as sinks due to the short-lived nature of leaves and the rapid turnover of carbon in the soil’s litter layer, and also put into question the theory that higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will lead to an increased uptake of the gas by trees.

The climate change talks in Bonn will take place at the Hotel Maritim, starting on Monday 16 July with informal consultations by the COP6 president, with participation by Ministers taking place between 19 and 22 July. The discussions will then continue for five more days at the diplomatic level during which the political outcome of the high-level segment will be translated into legal texts. The session will also encompass the fourteenth session of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI).

Some 180 nations will be represented at the talks, and the US has stated that it will be sending a delegation, but that the country’s leaders are still opposed to the Protocol.

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