Hot air, fake science and genetically modified trees

26 Mar

GM trees enter the Kyoto Protocol’s “clean development mechanism”.

By Chris Lang. Published in WRM Bulletin 80, March 2004.




The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been in force since 21 March 1994. For a decade, international climate change negotiators have filled meeting rooms with hot air. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 11 per cent, according to World Resources Institute.

Yet when more than 5,000 participants descended on Milan for the ninth Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP-9) in December 2003, reducing greenhouse gas emissions was not on the agenda.

Instead, as Larry Lohmann of The Corner House, a UK-based solidarity and research group, explains, the meeting “formulated rules for capturing new subsidies for industrial forestry projects that will accelerate global warming, disempower activists trying to tackle it, promote genetically-modified monoculture tree plantations, reduce biodiversity—and violate local people’s rights to land and forests worldwide.”

One of the decisions reached in Milan allows the North to establish plantations in the South under the Kyoto Protocol’s “Clean Development Mechanism”. These carbon dumps are supposed to absorb carbon dioxide and to store carbon.

The COP-9 decision on carbon dumps will allow corporations to sell “carbon credits” based on the amount of carbon supposedly absorbed by large-scale industrial monoculture tree plantations, including those using genetically modified trees. The decision allows corporations to take over huge tracts of land in the South and to continue polluting.

COP-9 also accepted what is perhaps the biggest scientific fraud the world has ever seen. In the international climate change negotiations, one ton of carbon released by burning coal or oil is considered to be the same as one ton of carbon contained in a tree plantation. From the point of view of the impact on the climate, however, these are two different types of carbon which cannot be added to, or subtracted from, each other.

Carbon stored in the form of fossil fuel under the earth is stable and unless corporations dig it out and burn it, it will not enter the atmosphere. Tree plantations, on the other hand, can catch fire, they can be destroyed by pests, they might be logged or local communities might try to reclaim the land they lost to the plantations by cutting down the trees.

Allowing genetically modified (GM) trees to be used as carbon dumps only makes a bad situation worse.

Before the Milan meetings, Norway and Switzerland had argued publicly against allowing the use of GM trees under the Kyoto Protocol. During COP-9 any opposition to GM trees withered away. Kyoto rules now state that countries on the receiving end of GM tree carbon dumps should “evaluate, in accordance with their national laws, potential risks associated with the use of genetically modified organisms by afforestation and reforestation project activities”.

Northern governments and corporations, according to this statement, have no obligation to evaluate the risks involved in the GM tree projects they impose on the South.

Even the mention of the word “risks” during the Kyoto negotiations in Milan was too much for the US chief climate negotiator, Harlan Watson. “We felt particularly that this singling out of GMOs was inappropriate in this context,” Watson told Agence France-Presse.

In an official submission issued at the end of COP-9, the US government stated: “Genetically modified organisms do not present unique risks that would warrant specific mention in the preamble to a decision on Clean Development Mechanism activities.”

Many communities in the South have seen the impacts of fast-growing tree plantations. In South Africa, Brazil, Thailand and India (to give a few examples) communities have seen their common lands, grasslands and forests converted to monoculture tree plantations. Because of the huge water needs of these plantations, streams have dried up and fields near plantations have become too dry to grow crops.

In 1993, Japanese car manufacturer Toyota started field trials to test trees which had been genetically modified to absorb more carbon. While carbon absorption increased, Toyota’s scientists also noted a dramatic increase in water consumption.

Trees genetically modified to grow without seeds, flowers, pollen or fruits will grow faster. The prospect of silent, sterile monocultures might look good from the corporate perspective, but it would be disastrous for insects, birds, wildlife and people living near the plantations.

GM trees that do produce pollen could cross with native trees, irrevocably changing forest ecosystems. Trees can take up to 100 years to mature, making it impossible to know the long-term risks. Dead leaves, branches, roots and trees rot, mixing with the soil and adding to the risks.

Earlier this year, a coalition of the People’s Biosafety Association, the Union of Ecoforestry and Friends of the Earth Finland, launched a petition against GM trees which will be presented to the UN Forum on Forests in Geneva in May 2004.

The coalition, called People’s Forest Forum, states: “The course taken in Milan was a wrong one. We do not need plantations of genetically modified tree clones on our planet. Plans like this are in direct contradiction to the terms of the Rio Convention on Biodiversity. We hope that as the UN Forest Forum assembles in Geneva next May, it will recognize this discrepancy and ban the introduction of genetically modified trees.”

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