Friday, September 12, 2008

Update on the recent meeting on including harvested wood products within forest carbon accounting in Geneva

I asked Trevor Hesselink to make a guest post based on his participation this week in the two day meeting on accounting for harvested wood products within the Kyoto framework. Trevor participated as an ENGO panelist providing perspectives on the implications of HWP accounting for conservation. Thanks Trevor!

Post by Trevor Hesselink, Director Forests Program CPAWS Wildlands League

Thanks for this blogging opportunity Chris, though I must admit that my head is still reeling… two days of intense discussion with individuals from every dimension of the Harvested Wood Products (HWPs) universe! Held here in Geneva, with participants from around the globe, the workshop was capably organized by the Swiss Federal Office for Environment, UNECE/FOA and MCPFE to discuss the challenges and opportunities for accounting for HWPs in international climate change policy. While the discussions were expansive and passionate, the outcomes and conclusions remain elusive at this point in time despite the efforts of the organizers to draw conclusions from the event.

While many of the individuals present had apparently been working on this subject for quite some time, it was also clear that many of the dimensions of the arena, including the mitigation potential, ancillary implications, accounting framework, and data challenges all had significant gradients of information and opinion present. Even the definition of the term “Harvested Wood Products” was still a subject of discussion during the final workshop plenary. All of this left me with the distinct feeling that the subject remains a technical, economic, and therefore political hot-potato with a shrinking window to obtain a consensus position to feed into the next accounting period.

I have included some more detailed stream-of-consciousness thoughts on some of the subjects that are most recoverable from those reeling thoughts…

Carbon Stocks…
There appeared to be reasonable consensus at the workshop that the carbon stock change effects of HWPs is relatively minor compared to other carbon stock changes, and the substitution effects of HWPs for products with heavier carbon footprints. Part of this common understanding was an acknowledgement that HWP stocks will eventually reach a steady state. I found it interesting that several participants (and at least one presenter) were still calling HWPs a “sink” implying that the wood is continuing to actually sequester carbon as opposed to simply delaying its release to atmosphere. Perhaps the storage and sequestration aspects need to be discussed separately, but the fact that wood only sequesters when it attached to a living tree apparently needs more common appreciation.

Stocks in landfill received some level of discussion and seemed to have a variety of relevance to the subject of HWPs. Whether HWP stocks in landfills is in or out of scope seems to remain somewhat contested, though many of the system boundaries shared in the workshop excluded this fate. While some of the participants and a couple of presenters did refer to storage effects of this pool, most seemed to focus on products in-use, acknowledging at different times that landfills fell into the waste sector arena, conflicted with waste diversion goals (such as reducing reliance upon disposable one-use products).

Substitution Effects…
There seemed to be consensus that substitution effects, where HWPs replace more energy intensive material production or fossil fuel use, are considered more important than stock change effects.

Much of the dialogue revolved around structural materials substitution, most often from a marketing / sector competitiveness perspective. This left me with the distinct impression that the mitigation outcome was cemented (probably wrong term here!) in the minds of many present who were more narrowly focusing on how to provide incentives as a competitive advantage to their sector or country and were less interested in discussing such things as perverse incentives and exacerbation of sustainability concerns.

The one substitution issue that I was hoping to hear more on was the subject of biomass energy and the roles of various accounting systems to provide incentive for their use or abuse. In fact, there seemed to be variability in whether or not participants included biofuels in their own definitions of HWPs. There was some general agreement in the “cascade” effect (with some situational exception) where longer-lived products precede biofuels in priority. Unfortunately, discussions did not extend to how this would be achieved in practice.

Sustainable Forest Management (SFM)
There is an awkward proviso attached to the HWP term, often directly expressed by speakers at the workshop but often without further focus on the implications. That proviso was “sourced from sustainably managed forests” and it was appended to the HWP term with marked regularity as I sat through the first day of the workshop. Though I doubt that “HWPSFSMF” will catch on as a helpful acronym in these ongoing discussions, the implied prerequisite condition dramatically underlined for me the priority of getting the rules right for SFM. While I spent considerable effort in positioning this in my own presentation on day two, the subject did not meet with substantial overt interest for the parties present leaving me to further believe that the mitigation “brand,” and international trade were also underlying agendas present.

On further reflection, it seems to me that the huge variety in forest context is possibly a factor in confusing common understanding of mitigation priorities. For example, the differences between owner-operators of 1-50ha forests in Europe, managed for centuries, and extensive primary growth conversion of massive public commons in South America, Australia, or the Canadian boreal create a disparity of understanding of sustainable forest management. It underlines to me what a crucial foundation that SFM is to these discussions, as those European managed forests appear to have much more confidence that SFM is occurring, and are looking for additional increments to further reduce carbon footprints. In these other jurisdictions, such confidence is not there, the industry footprint is often still growing, and HWP impacts pale in comparison to other carbon transactions that are occurring within the forest products cycle. The chances that accounting for HWPs will result in perverse incentives or reinforce SFM-shy behaviours in such countries, with shorter histories of management, appear significantly higher.

I only hope that the SFM side of the discussions is concurrently receiving attention and resources commensurate with its relative mitigation potential, and that it is further along than the HWPs discussion.

Final thoughts…
HWPs will continue to be produced and substitute for other products, particularly fossil fuels given the default accounting system in place. Therefore we will continue to accrue much of the potential benefit this activity can produce without any additional international incentives. In the absence of this, national scale tools abound and are arguably more likely to achieve the desired effect, particularly on the materials substitution incentive front. The one major downside that I can see by not rethinking the default system, is that the current incentive to utilize whatever fibre possible for biofuel will persist with very real concerns for sustainability in most international contexts.

There seemed to be frustration, in particular from the workshop participants from countries with more assured SFM, that more concerted international consensus is not apparent. I would suggest that the consensus would be there if universally high confidence in SFM existed. In the interim, the path forward would appear to be in securing that confidence and applying ourselves diligently to the significant mitigation opportunities in tackling forest deforestation and degradation as the critical first step that also eclipses the entire HWP potential for mitigation.


1 comment:

Chris Henschel said...

Hello Trevor,

Thanks so much for your guest post. Your assessment is very interesting and validates for me the opinion that we should not be including HWP carbon into National accounting. The benefits seem small and the risks real.

One comment on your last thought about bioenergy - the problem of bioenergy from forests being labelled as zero emission can be fixed by requiring mandatory accounting of forest management emissions and doesn't need us to account for carbon stored in HWPs.