'Buying' oxygen is polluted countries' latest remedy

Last week, Canada and Honduras agreed to ex-change debt pardons for

In a bid to scrub its environmental scorecard - if not its own skies - Canada inked a controversial deal last week to "buy" oxygen from Honduras.

It's a controversial move that pushes the envelope of the traditional "debt for nature" swap.

The Canadian International Development Agency will forgive about C$1 million (US$680,000) of Honduras's C$16 million debt to Canada. In exchange, a so-called "joint implementation office will be established in Honduras to promote reforestation and monitor forest conservation programs there. And Canada will get credit for helping "cut" emissions of carbon dioxide and other so called greenhouse gases. It is required to do so under an international global-warming treaty.

The idea behind the credit swap is that trees absorb greenhouse gases, and so forests - anywhere on the planet - help hold the line on climate change. And thus was born the "carbon sink" idea of promoting carbon-absorbing vegetation (in other parts of the world), thereby limiting a major carbon-producing country from having to implement more drastic conservation measures.

Given the clout of the timber industry here, it may be politically easier for Ottawa to support reforestation in Central America than to limit logging in Canada.

Questions of protocol

But it's not universally agreed that carbon-sink projects qualify among the measures a country can take to meet its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, agreed on in Japan in December 1997. This protocol, reached under the auspices of the United Nations, commits Canada to a 6 percent reduction in its emissions of greenhouse gases by 2012.

Christian Girouard, a spokesman at CIDA, says, "For Canada, it's very important that we include sinks" as a way to meet the targets, along with clean development projects and international emissions trading.

But the details of the protocol are still being formulated.

Gerry Scott, climate change director for the David Suzuki Foundation, an environmental organization in Vancouver, agrees that the details of the Kyoto Protocol aren't formalized yet. "People are feeling their way," he says, pursuing what he calls "experimental deals" as the regulations are still being formulated. Such dealmakers risk being caught out if the rulemaking takes an unexpected direction, he suggests. He worries aloud that they are "looking for loopholes rather than confronting the waste of energy."

Canada is one of a group of countries, including the United States, Australia, Japan, and Russia, that have been adamant in negotiations on the need for "joint implementation" projects, whereby one country, typically a developed country, pays for emissions reductions in another, typically a developing country. The idea is that the reductions are cheaper on a unit basis in a developing country, and since climate change is a global problem, any reduction anywhere helps.

On the other side of the transfer debate has been the European Union, which has pushed for a cap on how much of its obligations a country can meet by "joint implementation."

"There may be some potential" in this transfer idea, says Mr. Scott, but such projects need careful monitoring to ensure that the retrofitting and reductions really happen. Moreover, the kind of global cleanup Kyoto envisions "has to be based on more than just the marketplace - there has to be economic justice in all this," he adds.

Difficult to monitor

Nonita Yap, a rural development expert at the University of Guelph in Ontario, asks how sound the scientific analysis is behind forest sinks and their effect on greenhouse gas. "It's a nice picture; the imagery is effective," she says. "But how do you monitor this? The science is not easy. I can't imagine how you'd prove it."

Xiomara Gomez, the Honduran minister for the environment, is considerably more bullish on the whole deal. "This is a good opportunity to obtain resources from developed countries for forest protection," she told the Reuters news agency in an interview. She added that she has her eye on the United States and Germany as potential partners in other "oxygen sales."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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