Carbon dumping in the Mekong region

1 Oct

How the North is attempting to evade both its responsibility for global warming and the need to reduce emissions at home.

By Chris Lang. Published in Pulping the Mekong, October 2003.




Industrial activity has, over the past 150 years, increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere from around 580 billion tonnes to 750 billion tonnes. Every year, a further six billion tonnes is added.

The evidence that this is affected the global climate is overwhelming. The 1990s were the hottest decade on record. Thousands of people died as a result of heat waves in France this summer. A million people were made homeless as a result of recent floods in India. Monsoons in Asia are becoming less predictable and typhoons and storms are becoming more frequent. Warmer seas are killing coral reefs. An area of Arctic ice the size of Texas has melted in the last 20 years.

There are two approaches to dealing with the problem of climate change. The first is to reduce fossil fuel use. This means focussing on emissions in the North—countries in the North are responsible for 90 per cent of the increase. At the same time, energy conservation and efficiency, solar energy, other renewable energy sources and ecological rather than industrial agriculture need to be promoted.

The second approach involves technocratic attempts to change the earth’s surface, the atmosphere and the seas to allow them to absorb more carbon. Large-scale tree plantations (covering an area the size of Australia) are one of the proposals put forward as “carbon sinks”.

The Kyoto Protocol requires Northern countries to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. However, under Kyoto Protocol rules, a ton of carbon stored in tree plantations is considered equivalent to one ton of carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels. Through the Clean Development Mechanism, Northern countries can gain “carbon credits” (effectively permits to continue polluting) by funding plantation (and other) projects in the South which are supposed to mitigate climate change.

Apart from the inequity involved in appropriating vast areas of land in the South for tree plantations in order to deal with a problem that originated in the North, the science behind plantations as carbon sinks is fraudulent and corrupt.

It is impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy how much carbon will be absorbed by a plantation and for how long it will do so. Even the estimates that can be produced are irrelevant given that there is no way of predicting what might happen in the future. Fires frequently destroy tree plantations. Pests can wipe out large areas of plantations. Droughts or floods can affect growth rates and therefore carbon absorption rates.

To be accurate, any calculation of the carbon absorbed by a tree plantation would have to monitor closely the activities of communities displaced by the plantations. Villagers may decide to cut down the trees down to reclaim their land. They might clear another area of forest to farm. They may migrate to cities and once there buy high emission cars.

In order to calculate how much carbon is absorbed by a plantation, carbocrats have to produce a figure for how much carbon would be absorbed if the plantation was not established. There is simply no way of predicting what might have happened, given the complexity of political, social and environmental variables.

Carbon sink plantation projects have already appeared in the Mekong Region.

The Australian Government is funding a carbon sink project in Vietnam, through its International Greenhouse Partnerships Programme. Launched in May 1998, the IGP Programme aims “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through projects overseas” that will in future be considered as carbon off-set projects under the Kyoto Protocol.

The US$242,000 IGP project in Vietnam aims to establish fast-growing tree plantations. The project is to be carried out by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) with the Research Centre for Forest Tree Improvement of Vietnam. According to Nick Minchin the Australian Minister for Industry, Science and Resources, CSIRO “will increase the carbon dioxide uptake of planted forests [sic] in Vietnam through the use of genetically improved planting stock.”

CSIRO will supply acacia and eucalyptus seeds and will establish four seedling orchards, each covering five hectares, two in Quang Tri province in central Vietnam and two in Binh Thuan province in the south. Seedlings from these orchards will be planted over a total area of 8,250 hectares on a range of sites in Vietnam.

CSIRO estimates that the plantations will remove “an extra 21,500 tonnes of CO2” from the atmosphere per year compared to other tree plantations. The calculation is based on a 15 per cent increase in volume growth, which CSIRO expects from using improved tree seeds.

In September 2003, Japanese Nissho Iwai announced plans to introduce a $43 million investment fund to support its plantation operations in Vietnam. Nissho Iwai plans to establish new acacia plantations on 70,000 hectares. The company will target about 10 firms to finance the investment fund and in return for funding will offer carbon dioxide emission rights to investors. Through this fund, firms will buy the right to continue emitting greenhouse gases, which are supposed to be absorbed by the plantations in Vietnam.

In Laos, Ecosecurities, a UK-based consulting firm which specialises in setting up carbon trading deals, was hired by the Asian Development Bank to investigate whether ADB-funded plantations in Laos are eligible under the Clean Development Mechanism.

In 1991, the ADB funded a project in Thailand titled, “Preparation of a National Strategy on Global Climate Change”. Among the project’s recommendations is the implementation of “Reforestation programs, leading both to a mitigation of GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions and to the maintenance of biodiversity.”

In 1995, the Thai government agreed to accept foreign aid for forestry and energy efficiency projects aimed at preventing global warming. However, the government refused to allow “carbon credit” to Northern countries in return for such investment.

A joint project, between Kansai Electric Power Co and the RFD, aims to restore mangrove forests at the Khanom River in Nakhon Si Thammarat Province in southern Thailand. The project will also explore the possibility of using mangrove trees to absorb carbon dioxide. The project plans to plant 80 hectares with mangroves over four years.

In November 2000, during international climate negotiations at The Hague, at four in the morning a Japanese delegate inserted a claim for carbon credits from the Thai project into a document presented to the president of the negotiations. A Thai delegate asked, “How could we argue about that when we were in our hotel beds?” He pointed out that while Thailand sends 10 people to cover the negotiations, countries like Japan and the US sent as many as 150 officials.

Kansai Electric Power officials told the Daily Yomiuri, a Japanese newspaper, that the company may pull out of the mangrove project in Thailand, because Thailand may not allow Japan to claim carbon credits from the project. A Kansai official revealed where the importance of the project lies, at least as far as the company is concerned: “it . . . is important to produce research results that show that afforestation contributes to curbing global warming”.

Wanee Samphantharak is deputy secretary general of the Office of Environmental Policy and leads the Thai delegation at the UN Conference on Climate Change. In March 2001, Wanee told Thai newspaper The Nation that to accept funding for “reforestation” would cause more damage to Thailand than benefits. He pointed out that Thailand might lose sovereignty over forest areas. He added that accepting carbon sink plantations in Thailand would amount to agreeing that those who are causing global warming need take no action to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions, but can pay other countries to act for them.

In 2002, the United States offered to reduce Thailand’s debt, as part of a plan to establish tree plantations in Thailand in exchange for carbon credits. The Thai government rejected the proposal.

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