Nothing much seems to have happened during the 4th Conference of the Parties held in Buenos (COP4) Aires from 2 to 13 November. From a broad perspective, this can be regarded as very bad news, given that climate change is happening and will increasingly affect the lives of millions of people. From a more concrete perspective, the same news can be seen as positive, given that the majority of governments don't seen to be willing to make the difficult decisions that need to be made: subsitution of fossil fuels by renewable, clean and low impact energy sources and worldwide forest conservation. As the whole discusion on how to address climate change is focused on negotiations to avoid major cuts in fossil fuel use and to avoid real measures to halt deforestation, the seemingly bad news coming from Buenos Aires can be considered -in such a context- as good news.
Regarding forests and tree plantations as carbon reservoirs and sinks, decisions on the definitions of deforestation, reforestation and afforestation as per Article 3.3 of the Kyoto Protocol will be taken by the first COP following release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of a Special Report on Land-Use Change and Forestry (which will take place at COP6). Additionally, it was agreed that decisions on the inclusion of any additional human-induced land-use and forestry activities eligible for consideration by Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (Article 3.4) will also be decided at the first COP following release of the IPCC-Special Report (additional activities could include forestry, forest conservation, soil conservation, other agricultural activities, etc.).
There was pressure from some countries, including Australia and some EU countries to accelerate decisions on definitions under article 3.3 to be made prior to the IPCC Special Report. In the end, these pressures for early decisions were held back, which can be considered a good thing given the important consequences that such definitions may result in. Canada -for instance- has taken the position that clearcutting of forests, including old-growth forests, should not count as a carbon "debit" since they do not consider that as "deforestation", but that replanting clearcuts should count as a carbon "credit" under reforestation. Absurd as this may seem -it would be like a bank account where none of your checks are debited, and all your deposits are credited- Canada's position is indicative of the wide range of problems that will emerge if definitions on deforestation, reforestation and afforestation are adopted without careful analysis of their consequences.
The Buenos Aires meeting also witnessed marked differences in NGO opinion regarding sinks. Some US based NGOs (namely the Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy and the World Resources Institute) promoted very wide expanded use of sinks. The World Rainforest Movement, Friends of the Earth, JATAN, WWF, Greenpeace and many other NGOs took the opposite view, stating that not only will wide use of sinks undermine achievement of the objectives of the Convention -which is to stabilize greenhouse gases at levels below which irreversible impacts to ecosystems, including forest ecosystems, will occur- but that additionally, activities promoted under it will more likely lead to overall negative impacts on forest biodiversity and local communities. Concerns included perverse incentives to log and clear primary forests, accelerated expansion of fast-growing monoculture tree plantations and impacts resulting from those processes on local communities and indigenous peoples.
In sum, neither governments nor NGOs are particularly united at the climate change level and many issues still remain open for discussion. Such situation provides a breathing space for all those concerned with people and the environment, to raise awareness among the public about the role that their governments are playing in these negotiations, so as to influence them in a more positive direction than the one they seem to be heading to. As part of these activities, we include below a contribution received from Rainforest Relief and a summary of the NGO Forest Working Group's press release at COP4.