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CLIMATE CHANGE: Bolster Natural Carbon Absorption, Says UN

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jun 5 2009 (IPS) - Expanding the capacity of natural areas for capturing and storing carbon is one of the keys to curbing climate change, and would be a relatively low-cost solution that would also improve the quality of life of millions of farmers, the United Nations said Friday.

More attention must be paid to natural carbon absorption, along with cutting greenhouse gases caused by humans, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) stated in a report released to coincide with World Environment Day, which was globally hosted by Mexico.

The report, ‘The Natural Fix? The Role of Ecosystems in Climate Mitigation’, calls for the adoption of a “comprehensive policy framework” on management of carbon – the main greenhouse gas – which would include the conservation and restoration of ecosystems and the management of grasslands and agricultural areas.

“Safeguarding and restoring carbon in three systems – forests, peatlands and agriculture – might over the coming decades reduce well over 50 gigatonnes (50 billion tonnes) of carbon emissions that would otherwise enter the atmosphere: others like grasslands and coastal ones such as mangroves are capable of playing their part too,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner says in the preface to the report.

Slowing the rate of greenhouse gas emissions “will be impossible without addressing carbon losses from ecosystems such as forests and peatlands. Managing ecosystems for carbon can not only reduce carbon emissions; it can also actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” says the 68-page report.

“The multiple benefits of such investments range from improved lives and livelihoods, employment in areas such as conservation, management, monitoring and rehabilitation alongside reversing the rate of loss of biodiversity and improved water supplies up to the stabilisation of precious soils,” according to Steiner.

“Implementation of widespread ecosystem carbon management policies presents great challenges, raising significant institutional and regulatory issues and complex political and socio-economic dilemmas. In particular, an effective policy will need to achieve a balance between rural livelihoods and carbon management policies that may threaten those livelihoods,” the report says.

But the global environmental watchdog Greenpeace says the natural capacity of ecosystems to capture carbon is not a priority in the negotiations among governments ahead of the December U.N. Climate Convention Meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark.

“If no progress has been made in setting timeframes for emissions cuts by developed countries, even less progress has been made in the case of carbon management,” María José Cárdenas, head of the Greenpeace Mexico climate and energy campaign, told IPS.

The aim of the Denmark meeting is to sign a new international climate change agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, in effect since 2005, the 37 industrialised countries committed themselves to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions by five percent on average, from 1990 levels, by target dates ranging from 2008 to 2012.

Some of the countries, like Canada, have already admitted that they will not reach the target.

The United States, which is responsible for one-quarter of global greenhouse gases, is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol, on the decision of former president George W. Bush (2001-2009).

His successor President Barack Obama has pledged to sign the new agreement that is to emerge from the Denmark conference, and said his country would assume clear commitments on air pollution.

But his administration has not referred to the need for new agreements to enhance natural carbon sequestration.

The UNEP report points out that “stabilising or reducing the amount of atmospheric carbon can be achieved in essentially two ways: by reducing the rate of emission, or by increasing the rate of absorption. Any successful strategy is almost certain to need both approaches, and will require contributions from all sectors.”

The authors warn that “Currently the world’s ecosystems, instead of maintaining and enhancing nature’s carbon capture and storage capacity, are being depleted at an alarming rate,” while emissions of “anthropogenic” greenhouse gases, especially from the burning of fossil fuels, continue to rise.

There is currently more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any other time in the last 650,000 years. In 2006, the average atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was 381 parts per million (ppm), compared to 280 ppm at the start of the industrial revolution in the mid-18th century.

“The rate at which the concentration is increasing is the highest since the beginning of continuous monitoring in 1959,” says the UNEP report.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) studies say that limiting global temperature increase in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change would require stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at 445–490 ppm. The current concentration is around 430 ppm.

According to the IPCC, global greenhouse gas emissions will need to peak by 2015 and drop 85 percent below 2000 levels by 2050, in order to limit global mean temperature increases to 2 to 2.4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and thus avoid some of the most extreme impacts of climate change.

But as a result of the global economic recession, the governments of industrialised nations, instead of moving towards a low carbon future and sustainable consumption, seem to be sticking to oil-based energy and attempting to return to pre-crisis consumption levels, Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM) of Mexico Professor Martha Chávez told IPS.

However, there is also a renewed clamour from experts and activists calling for a stop to the destruction of the environment, “which would require the modification of current economic and development policies,” said Chávez.

“What is achieved in Denmark could be important; the negotiations are difficult but not impossible,” she added.

Greenpeace activist Cárdenas, on the other hand, was not optimistic about the Denmark meeting.

“There is talk about a renewed interest in negotiating emissions reduction commitments, but in practice the crisis is being used to maintain the consumerist system that has generated the climate change problems we are suffering today,” she said.

Steiner, by contrast, said the three trillion dollars “worth of stimulus packages, mobilised to reverse the downturn in the global economy, represents an opportunity to Seal a meaningful climate Deal and perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to accelerate a transition to a low-carbon Green Economy”.

“There is every optimism governments in Copenhagen will agree to begin paying developing countries for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD),” he said.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC), said this week that “The political moment is right to reach an agreement. There is no doubt in my mind that the Copenhagen climate conference in December is going to lead to a result.”

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