Closing Loopholes and Bridging Gaps After Bonn

International youth invite delegates to hide their emissions by throwing plastic "emissions" balls through a parody of the LULUCF loophole rules (Photo courtesy SustainUS)

Logging loopholes, gigaton gaps, and other funny phrases await resolution from negotiators now that the United Nations climate talks have wrapped up in Bonn. From finance to forests, a lot of issues will be taken up by governments when they meet again in—surprise—Bonn, in August, and then again in China later this year. Waiting until the annual high-level climate summit in Cancun, Mexico, in November to address these issues would leave little chance of solving them by that summit’s end.

Land use, land use change, and forestry (LULUCF) issues dominated much of the discussion in Bonn. Many developed (Annex I) nations argued for historical “baseline” rules that would give them credit for more emissions reductions than they actually achieved. That baseline serves as a reference period for assessing how greenhouse gas emissions from forestry practices (mostly logging) and land use activities (creating or destroying wetlands, grasslands, etc.) have changed over time due to human activity. If developed countries get their way, the rules would allow carbon storage from forest growth to count toward their reductions, but ignore future emissions from fires and logging.

Many developing nations cried foul, calling the proposals a “logging loophole” that would let countries hide their true emissions levels. They blocked agreement on how to calculate countries’ lifetime forest and land emissions, delaying the adoption of rules until at least the next Bonn meeting.

Simultaneously, some developing countries began to talk about using similar accounting rules to calculate their own emissions under the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) discussions. That would let them hide some of their deforestation emissions, particularly significant for emerging economies that may be subject to future carbon caps.  While no rule changes were officially advanced in Bonn, proposals may surface at the next Bonn meeting if the LULUCF disagreements remain unresolved.

As John Mulrow and Marion Viewig reported earlier, countries also left final decisions on carbon offsets and verification and financing, respectively, for future sessions.

Nearly as wide as the logging loophole in some negotiators’ minds is the gigaton gap—the difference between emissions reductions pledged and the amount believed necessary to keep global average temperature rise below 2°C. That’s a threshold scientists believe might prevent the worst impacts of climate change. The gap is measured in billions of tons (gigatons) of greenhouse gases. Most countries agreed to the temperature limit in both the Copenhagen Accord and at last year’s meeting of the G8.

One estimate suggests that countries’ current pledges will not keep the temperature increase below even 3°C. Island nations asked for the United Nations climate change staff to produce a report on the impacts of 1.5ºC of warming (a change still expected to swamp many of their lands), but Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar blocked the proposal. Countries expect to discuss at the next Bonn meeting a suite of solutions that might close, or at least narrow, the gap between the emissions paths we are and should be on. Advocates have already suggested a buffet of options. Nations will likely also revisit a version of the 1.5ºC report suggestion.

The recent Bonn talks demonstrated that agreement on these fundamental issues will be difficult to reach. Meanwhile, we are losing time that we don’t have.

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