The Atmosphere doesn’t get your Accounting Tricks: Canada and the Logging Loophole
At the UN climate change negotiations in Cancun, things are moving along as expected. That is to say, slowly. These are not the exciting, emotionally charged negotiations that had hopes high in Copenhagen last year. No one expects major outcomes, and countries, including Canada, are generally only making benign statements of commitment to an eventual fair and legally binding agreement.
But there is one agenda item moving forward very rapidly, and that has the small island of Tuvalu in a tizzy, as well as some Canadians, including me.
Parties are close to agreement on how developed countries calculate and report emissions from land uses, such as forestry. The nearly agreed upon proposal is more than troubling. Countries like Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Russia, are trying to avoid a standardized measurement programme that would force them to accurately report forestry numbers. The current text would allow emissions increases from forestry and other land use sectors like agriculture to be hidden – something opponents are calling “the logging loophole”.
The consequence: around half a billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions going uncounted each year; the equivalent of Canada’s total annual reported emissions.
“These countries want to have it both ways,” says Jason Funk, from Environmental Defense Fund. “When forests are absorbing carbon, they want to claim credits. But when they start cutting down those forests, they want to make logging emissions go away. It’s dishonest accounting.”
While the new rules would make accounting of forest emissions legally binding after 2012, they set a baseline – the year of reference for measurement – that is in the future. Each developed country could pick any level of emissions it likes as a baseline. That way, a country could increase its deforestation, and then set a baseline at a time of relatively low natural forest cover. Increased emissions are kept off the books, making pledges look more ambitious than they are.
An example: Canada has publicly pledged to reduce its emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, but if emissions from logging were included, emissions would actually be 1.4 percent higher.
The agreement would also see carbon stored in harvested wood products, like cabinets or tables, count as reductions in emissions because carbon would be permanently be sequestered in your living room or kitchen.
Of course, Canada’s interest in here is its forestry industry. Logging companies could profit from a 30 percent increase in activity and not account for it.
“This cozy little deal for the forest sector would undermine the efforts of all countries and other sectors. It must be rejected in Cancun. I’d like to know what the energy utilities and manufacturers think about the fairness of this approach, when they are expected to make major changes that will deliver real emission reductions,” says Chris Henschel from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).
Many environmental organizations, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), say that countries’ emissions reductions pledges should be increased to compensate for losses from logging.
“What we need are incentives for developed countries to reduce their current logging emissions, not increase them with impunity,” says Melanie Coath from the RSPB. “If this occurs, countries will have to increase their pledges to compensate.”
At the negotiations in Tianjin, China last month, African countries and small island states like Tuvalu spoke out strongly against the logging loophole. But things have shifted in the intervening month. Exactly what is going on is unclear because negotiations have been taking place behind closed doors. Tuvalu did table a proposal at the start of the week that would close problematic loopholes. But the country has since been isolated in this position.
What is clear is that leaving these loopholes in a new agreement on forest accounting reduces the credibility of reported emissions, and of states’ commitments to tackling climate change. Tuvalu’s concerns must be taken seriously – 500 million tons of carbon dioxide a year could mean the difference between survival and submersion for many countries. Canada must be a leader, not a cheat. The problem with accounting tricks is that you cannot trick the atmosphere.