Saturday, June 13, 2009

Australia demands bushfire exemption in carbon treaty

The Age, June 13, 2009 - 11:02AM

Peat bogs in Germany, New Zealand firs and North American forests will likely allow industrialized countries to lower carbon emissions while still burning coal and oil, according to a draft United Nations document.

Australia is demanding that emissions from natural disasters, such as bush fires, not be counted in its tally.

Negotiators at climate-change talks in Bonn are proposing that carbon stored and absorbed by forests, soil and peat bogs in richer nations be included as part of national targets for cutting CO2, a document obtained by Bloomberg News showed.

American Electric Power and Germany's RWE are among the utilities that may benefit by paying less for emissions permits.

The plan could ''significantly'' improve those countries' abilities to claim they are tackling climate change without having to scale back the use of dirtier coal, oil and natural gas, said Paul Winn, a climate-change expert at Greenpeace.

''Basically, this would be a 'get-out-of-jail-free' card,'' Winn said. ''Those countries could go on polluting the atmosphere and say `hey, we're meeting our targets.'''

Billions of tons of carbon are stored in the forests of Canada, the US and Russia as well as in peat bogs, cropland and other areas across Australia, New Zealand and Europe. By including the CO2 stored in vegetation in global-warming targets, industrialized nations could burn more fossil fuels and possibly buy fewer emission permits earned by developing countries for windmills, solar panels and protecting forests.

''These land-use emissions are not insignificant,'' Jonathan Pershing, deputy chief climate negotiator for the US delegation, said in an interview. US forests alone absorb the equivalent of about 10 per cent of the country's entire output from the use of fuels such as coal that pollute the atmosphere.

Rotting, burning trees

Globally, cropland accounts for about 17 per cent of emissions, according to The Nature Conservancy, which like Greenpeace is an environmental advocacy group. Cutting down trees in tropical forests and leaving them to rot or burn contributes almost a fifth of man-made greenhouse gases, scientists say.

''There's a lot of scope for land-use change to play a very important role in overall targets,'' said Peter Iversen, a member of the Danish delegation at the Bonn talks.

Proposals by some countries on ''land-use, land-use change and forests,'' known as LULUCF, risk putting more CO2 into the atmosphere that adds to global warming. Australia wants to get credit for their forests and soils absorbing the gases but not when they release it, such as in brush fires, an increasingly frequent occurrence in one of the world's driest regions.

Australian blazes

Fires in 2003 in Australia released some 200 megatons of CO2, about four times the annual absorption rate, Greenpeace's Winn said yesterday. Earlier this year, fires ravaged southeastern parts of the country after temperatures soared above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

If proposed rules on land-use are adopted at the climate talks, almost half of Australia's planned emissions reductions of as much as 25 per cent by 2020 from 2000 levels would be achieved ``on paper'' by its forests and crops, Winn said.

That credit would still be claimed even if fires destroy large stands of trees because Australia is demanding that CO2 emissions due to natural disasters not be counted.

New Zealand's ''short-rotation'' forests of Douglas fir and pine will have a significant impact on how much carbon the Pacific nation emits, said Bryan Smith, a New Zealand delegate at the talks. That means developing a system that takes those fluctuations into account and not penalize the country, he said.

Short-rotation forests are trees grown and cut down or harvested in a few years, common in warmer climates.

Bonn talks end

Peatlands globally release 1 gigaton of carbon, or 8 per cent of global emissions, as they drain, said Hans Joosten, a researcher at the University of Greifswald. In the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, drying peatland accounts for almost a third of the region's emissions.

Today is the final day of the talks in Bonn, part of a UN- sponsored effort to slow global warming by limiting the amount of greenhouse gases spewed into the air, mainly by wealthy countries. The talks, which continue in the former German capital in August, will culminate in Copenhagen in December when more than 170 countries will attempt to set reduction targets for the coming decades.

It will be ''physically impossible'' to have a detailed treaty reached in time for the Copenhagen summit so more negotiations will be required to settle remaining areas of disagreement, the UN's chief negotiator Yvo de Boer has said.

Global emissions must be cut at least in half by 2050 to avoid an average temperature gain of more than 2 degrees Celsius that would lead to higher sea levels, worse droughts and more intense storms, according to the UN's climate panel, or IPCC.

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