Climate Change, Economy & Trade, Environment, Europe, Headlines

EUROPE: New Permits to Pollute Sought

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Sep 16 2010 (IPS) - Extra permits to pollute the atmosphere would be given to corporations that invest in areas surrounding tropical rainforests under plans drawn up by one of Europe’s most influential pressure groups.

With deforestation accounting for 20 percent of global releases of heat- trapping gases, the future of schemes ostensibly aimed at preserving tropical ecosystems will be one of the key topics for the United Nations’ climate change negotiations in Cancún, Mexico, during November and December. Chief among these schemes is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), under which rich countries can buy “credits” that allow them to avoid reducing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) at home by financing environmental projects in poorer parts of the world.

Since the CDM entered into effect in 2005, only a handful of forestry projects have been deemed eligible for funding by the board supervising its activities. Forestry projects have also been excluded from the European Union’s emissions trading scheme (ETS), which allows companies to buy and sell pollution licences.

BusinessEurope, the largest confederation of private sector firms, is now trying to convince policy makers to view forest credits more favourably.

Folker Franz, a specialist on environmental policy for BusinessEurope, said he believed that greater use of forest credits “would be the way to go to save the world.”

A market-based approach could have environmental benefits, he contended. “If we’ll see people profit from this, then let them profit, so long as it stops deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil,” he told IPS.

But green campaigners argue that the concept of using forest projects in South America or Asia to “offset” emissions in Europe or the U.S. is fundamentally flawed. The UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change – – which bands together scientists advising the world’s governments — has calculated that emissions from burning oil and other fossil fuels needs to be reduced by 80-95 percent by 2050 if a catastrophic increase in the earth’s temperatures is to be averted. Green activists maintain, therefore, that there is an onus on wealthier countries to ensure genuine reductions domestically, rather than simply investing in “clean” projects abroad.

“Including forest credits in the ETS would be a very bad idea,” said Jutta Kill from the forest conservation group Fern. “The main reason why it would be a bad idea is that carbon offsetting is a big distraction from tackling climate change.”

Whereas trees can absorb carbon dioxide and have a useful role in halting its release into the atmosphere, a recent Fern report indicates it would be entirely wrong to base global climate change policy on forestry projects. Titled ‘Trading Carbon’, the study says that trees should not be considered permanent carbon sinks. Carbon can easily be released into the environment if trees are burnt, diseased, suffer natural decay or variations in weather.

Furthermore, measuring carbon in forests is known to be an inexact science. Research conducted in Canada has found that estimates of the carbon balance in North American forests can vary by 1,000 percent once factors such as increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are taken into account.

Environmentalists also argue that the experience with emissions trading and “offsetting” schemes so far does not inspire confidence in such market- oriented approaches. Earlier this month, the green campaign group Sandbag published a new evaluation of the ETS. Titled ‘Cap or Trap?’, the evaluation found that although representatives of energy-intensive industries such as steel and cement-making had lobbied aggressively to weaken the ambitions of the ETS, they have benefited enormously from it.

Concessions granted to these sectors by the EU should enable them to reap profits ranging from 1.8 billion euros (2.3 billion dollars) for steel to 2.3 billion euros for cement over the 2008-12 period. Yet emissions for the Union’s cement sector fell less than 1 percent below the rate of a slump in production caused by the recession over the past few years, according to Sandbag. The relative reduction in emissions from the steel sector has been even lower still.

Magda Stoczkiewicz, Brussels director with Friends of the Earth, said that the experience of carbon trading is that “very often projects don’t reduce CO2 but in reality just become trading and marketing tools.”

Proposals from BusinessEurope should be treated with caution, she argued, because it has been trying to block the EU from setting more ambitious targets for greenhouse gas emissions. Whereas the Union’s officials have been studying the possibility of cutting emissions by 30 percent by 2020 — instead of the 20 percent target previously set — BusinessEurope has opposed such moves.

“BusinessEurope’s main aim is turning the projects into a money machine,” Stoczkiewicz added. “What we are afraid of is that forest credits will go the same way as other projects that have been set up for cashing money, not for CO2 reductions.”

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