Carbon Accounting and the Kyoto Protocol

Options Magazine, Autumn 2000:

Based on extensive research IIASA scientists concluded that only full carbon accounting (FCA), covering all carbon-related components of terrestrial ecosystems, can provide the accuracy needed to balance the carbon emissions —carbon savings budget.  

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol commits the industrialized countries—so-called Annex 1 nations—to reduce their net emissions of greenhouse gases from 2008–2012 by 225 million tons of carbon (tC) from the 1990 level of 4,350 million tC.

To make target reductions more feasible and cost-effective, the Kyoto Protocol allows Annex 1 countries to offset their fossil fuel emissions by deducting the presumed savings that would result from creating biological sinks for carbon. The eligible approaches (termed “Kyoto activities”) may include planting new forests, reforesting clear-cut areas, cutting down unhealthy forests, and other agreed land use, land use change, and forestry activities, as well as so-called joint implementation projects, clean development mechanisms, and international trading schemes. 

Countries are required to verify the savings that result before trying to balance them against emissions. To make the necessary calculations, the IPCC has recommended partial carbon accounting (PCA), a system that covers only the Kyoto activities. However, based on extensive research over the past three years, IIASA’s Forestry Program (FOR) has concluded that only full carbon accounting (FCA), covering all carbon-related components of terrestrial ecosystems, can provide the necessary accuracy. 

FCA consists of a “snapshot” taken at a specific point in time of the amounts of carbon stored in or released from soils, terrestrial biota, agricultural and forest products, animal husbandry, and the energy sector. It uses the concepts of pools (reservoirs that can accumulate or release carbon) and fluxes (transfers of carbon from one pool to another) to capture how these components interact.

To evaluate the usefulness of current carbon accounting and how it might influence implementation of the Kyoto Protocol at the national level, FOR used FCA to conduct an in-depth analysis of Russia’s carbon balance. Russia was an ideal case study, as FOR already possessed an outstanding network of Russian collaborators and unique databases of its terrestrial ecosystems. Moreover, as Russia accounts for some 15% of the global net releases of carbon to the atmosphere, a better understanding of the Russian carbon balance is both important in itself and critical to better understand the global carbon balance.

FOR research showed that, in theory, Russia could try to bring an improvement of between 142 million and 372 million tC into a trading scheme permitted by the Kyoto Protocol. But this is only one side of the coin. The other side is the issue of uncertainty. FOR devoted substantial effort to estimating the uncertainties in the carbon account and linking them with the length of time needed to establish the atmospheric effects of carbon emissions. For example, for 1990 FOR found an uncertainty range of ±579 million tC around the average net emissions—a figure that exceeds the estimated total emissions. To demonstrate the universal relevance of FCA, FOR conducted a related study of Austria and found similar results: large uncertainties underlying its carbon account. The persistent uncertainties confirm that any verification of changes in a country’s carbon budget will require time extending far beyond the Kyoto commitment period.

These findings lead to several inevitable policy conclusions:

  • Currently, Annex 1 countries cannot verify that they have achieved the targets to which they committed themselves under the Protocol.
  • Given the Protocol’s wording and the current knowledge base, countries can circumvent their Kyoto targets.
  • Without uncertainty assessments, no verification can be made.
  • Thus, with no reliable verification tool, it is impossible to assess the impact of Kyoto activities on atmospheric CO2 levels.

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Last edited: 06 February 2017

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