The Myth about Russian Kyoto Carbon Sinks

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posted November 15, 2002
There is a lot of deception in the government’s propaganda campaign to get the Canadian public to acquiesce to the ratification of the Kyoto protocol later this year. Here is an example, which I find very disturbing and that is of special interest to those concerned with the preservation of old growth forests.

Consider the latest of many government plans developed to move from the setting of a Kyoto target to a definite plan of action to achieve the target of lowering carbon dioxide emissions to their 1990 level. This plan provides for reductions in the domestic consumption of fossil fuels. It also envisions that Canada will meet its obligation in part by buying a significant amount of emission rights from Russia, which correspondingly reduce the requirement for reductions in Canada. It has been suggested that this policy will involve transferring around one or two billion dollars a year to some account of the Russian government.

Let us set aside all kinds of questions about this policy. The budgetary cost when the Canadian military and health care need more funds, the depreciation of the exchange rate when we ship the funds abroad, assuring Russia’s compliance and the use to which Russians will put the money.

Unfortunately, there is a much more fundamental flaw in the Russian carbon sink story: Only harvested and newly reforested lands act as net absorbers of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas. Mature or undisturbed forests simultaneously absorb and release the same amounts of that gas. They do not function as carbon sinks.

A walk in any mature forest is an uplifting experience, especially on the West Coast, where the towering tree giants evoke powerful emotions in the hearts of many. But, as anyone who ever made such a walk knows, it is not easy. Fallen trees, branches and other organic debris block the way and cause one to slip and slides continuously – unless there is a man-made path, but then the forest is no longer undisturbed. The important fact is that when this vegetation on the forest floor rots, it releases the same amount of carbon dioxide the rotting material absorbed when it was alive.

Rotting is like burning, except that there is no flame. Through the action of bacteria the wood of trees slowly becomes compost and ultimately a heap of minerals, just like the minerals we find in the ashes of our fireplaces or power stations burning wood or coal. If there had not been such a cycle of forests binding and releasing carbon dioxide, through time the oxygen levels on earth would have risen and eventually would have killed all higher life forms. Oxygen in high concentrations is very corrosive and toxic.

The size of Russia’s forests is staggering indeed. It comes to 694 million acres, more than the 543 million acres found in Canada (245) and US (298) combined. No wonder that it attracts so much attention by the proponents of Kyoto. But the fact is that only 14 million acres, or only two percent of Russia’s forests have been harvested. The rest are undisturbed and should not be considered eligible to serve as carbon sinks. By contrast, 60 and 80 percent of Canadian and US forests, respectively, have been harvested, though some of the latter have been disturbed long ago and are now almost mature again.

It seems obvious to me that the mature forests of Russia do not qualify as carbon sinks to any significant degree making it impossible to sell credits for them to Canada. But why does the official government plan nevertheless propose the purchase of these rights in its latest official plan?

None of the two possible answers to this question are encouraging. Is the government deliberately misleading Canadians? Or are the developers of the plan so incompetent that they did not know about the nature and stock of mature forests in Russia? What is the role of the Minister of the Environment David Anderson in this sordid affair?

There are many Canadians who support the adoption of Kyoto because they think it will help preserve mature forests. It will do no such thing. It may well do the opposite, encourage Russia to cut more trees to get more emission rights to sell. I hope that they will no longer be deceived about the government’s plan.

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