The Kyoto Protocol

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The Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in December 1997, is the first major step toward implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Protocol sets targets for industrialized nations to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases over the next 10 years. It offers four means to achieve those targets: domestic action and three international market-based instruments. These mechanisms work through emissions reductions or through enhancements in the ability of terrestrial ecosystems to absorb carbon. This Dialogue focuses on the Protocol's provisions to enhance the ability of terrestrial ecosystems to absorb carbon. These provisions may create incentives and financial mechanisms for more effective and sustainable management of forests and associated biodiversity. Whether this potential can be realized, however, depends on effective resolution of a number of outstanding issues. Some of these are legal issues related to further refinement of the intent and precise meaning of the Protocol itself. Others, of equal importance, are financial, concerning how to develop the efficient market for carbon offsets necessary to generate funds for improved forest and biodiversity management. This Dialogue reviews both sets of issues, to provide a clear picture of what actually will be required if the Protocol is to fulfil its potential as a source of funds for improved forest management. The Dialogue begins by providing background in two key areas: the place of forests in the carbon cycle and the forest-related provisions of the Protocol. It then considers five issues that will arise regarding .the impacts of the Protocol on forests: 1) Key unresolved issues among the forest provisions of the Protocol; 2) Externalities, such as biodiversity and watershed protection, that may be associated with implementation of the forest provisions of the Protocol; 3) Risks associated with carbon sequestration projects;

4) Financial mechanisms that may help reduce those risks; and 5) The possible role of forests in an emissions permit trading system.

Climate change is expected to result from a variety of human activities, the most prominent of which is the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. The accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere is due to the fact that more carbon is emitted than is removed by terrestrial ecosystems and the oceans. Two sources of CO2 are especially important in terms of climate change--the combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation. The global carbon cycle can be understood as a closed system in which carbon is stored in the atmosphere, the oceans, and terrestrial biota, and flows among them as an outcome of natural processes and human activities. Hundreds of billions of tons of carbon in the form of CO2 are absorbed from or emitted into the atmosphere every year through natural processes. These processes include plant photosynthesis, respiration, and decay, as well as absorption and release by the oceans. When the cycle is in equilibrium, carbon flows are roughly in balance: carbon emitted to the atmosphere is offset by carbon drawn out of the atmosphere and the stock stored in each area is constant. Over the last 160,000 years, concentrations of atmospheric CO2 have ranged between 200 and 280 parts per million. High concentrations of atmospheric CO2 have been associated with particularly warm climatic periods, while low concentrations have been associated with cooler periods. Understanding the role of terrestrial biota in the carbon cycle is key to analyzing the impacts of the Protocol on forests. This involves both stocks--how much carbon is held in standing biomass--and flows-- whether at a given point in time each ecosystem is a net absorber (sink) or emitter (source) of carbon. Given our concern with global warming--that is, with climate change caused by increased carbon stored in the atmosphere rather than in terrestrial ecosystems--our interest is to...
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