The Hague did not live up to expectations

Aug 2001

A commentary by Bernhard Schlamadinger, Leader of Task 38.

Climate change is considered to be one of the most serious environment threats we face. It is caused by rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, due largely to the combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation. The response has been negotiated internationally following the development of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. The Kyoto Protocol to the Convention was negotiated in 1997 to set legally binding targets for emissions reductions. The latest in the series of meetings, the 6th Conference of the Parties (COP6) in the Hague, promised to provide clarity on a number of issues (for example, the consequences of non-compliance and the rules for emissions trading) and provide the way forward for implementing the Kyoto Protocol. Sadly this was not to be.

One of the key issues on the table at COP6 was how to deal with activities in the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry sector. This was an important issue for bioenergy, since decisions could have had major implications for the biomass supply side of bioenergy systems. Bioenergy systems can offer a number of benefits in terms of greenhouse gas removal or avoidance, as clearly outlined in the IEA Bioenergy Position Paper produced by Task 25 ( While there are fairly clear messages that carbon stock changes during the commitment period (2008-2012) resulting from afforestation, reforestation and deforestation activities since 1990 will be included, there is still a lack of consensus on other issues. These include some definitions, whether additional activities since 1990 will be included (and how), and the question of claiming credit for land management activities in other countries, particularly developing countries.

In the final hours of the negotiations the President of COP6, Dutch Environment Minister Jan Pronk, tabled a proposal as a basis for compromise. It suggested that 15% of the carbon uptake in managed forests, and 70% of the carbon uptake in croplands and grazing lands, could be accounted for by industrialized countries. The text also included afforestation and reforestation as allowable projects in developing countries. Even though countries began to show some flexibility, no final agreement could be found on the issue of land management. It was agreed to suspend COP6 and continue negotiations in May 2001 in Bonn/Germany.

What would the compromise have meant for bioenergy? Observers have compared the compromise paper with a line that was drawn in the sand which cannot easily be removed, and this line will likely serve as the starting point for new talks. The agreement would have included full credit for the carbon stock increases associated with establishment of new plantations on non-forest land, eg for biofuels. It would also have accounted for increases in soil carbon when non-tree crops are grown for biofuels. Greater removal of biomass from existing forests, on the other hand, can sometimes decrease carbon stocks in the short term while providing continued greenhouse-gas benefits through fossil-fuel substitution. Counting only 15% of the carbon stock changes in existing forests would have been a modest incentive for increasing or preserving carbon stocks in forests. Fifteen percent is also low enough so that it does not compromise the incentive for using biofuels, provided that they are efficiently converted into useful energy such as heat or power. Another pending decision to be taken under the UNFCCC next year is how to account for carbon in harvested wood products. This will be the focus of an informal workshop in New Zealand in February 2001, at which several Task 25 participants will be present. Task 25 will also launch an e-mail discussion list on wood products and address the issue at its next workshop in Canberra/Australia at the end of March.

Let us all hope that there is more progress at COP6 part II in May and June 2001 in Bonn, so that countries can proceed with ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. An effective international climate-change regime will be important to foster the increased use of bioenergy.