According to new research, the Kyoto Protocol to halt climate change, which the U.S. refuses to sign, won’t work because it’s based on a scientific fallacy. The protocol allows countries to meet their targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade by planting forests to soak up carbon dioxide. But the soil in these new forests will actually release more carbon than the trees absorb in the first 10 years. “Countries will be able to claim carbon credits for the forests. But that won’t reflect what is happening in the atmosphere,” says Riccardo Valentini of CarboEurope.

The problem is that forest soil and the organic matter buried it contains three to four times as much carbon as the vegetation growing in it. CarboEurope’s researchers discovered that when ground is cleared for forest planting, rotting organic matter in the soil releases a surge of CO2 into the air. This release will exceed the CO2 absorbed by the growing trees for at least the first 10 years. Only later will the uptake of carbon by the trees begin to offset the losses from soils. And new forests planted on wet, peaty soils will never absorb as much carbon as they spit out, according to CarboEurope chairman Han Dolman.

CO2 monitoring devices reveal that Europe’s forests are absorbing up to 400 million tons a year, or 30% of the continent’s emissions. Researchers once thought most of this came from young forests, since old forests were sucking up the same amount of gas as they released. But it turns out that old forests actually accumulate more carbon than young ones, so conserving old forests is a better policy than planting new ones. The trouble is, in many parts of the world, old forests are rapidly being cut down for lumber or to clear land for planting.

“(Countries) will be able to claim carbon credits for the new planting, while in reality releasing huge amounts of CO2 into the air,” says Valentini. “There is nothing in the protocol to stop this.” Italy, for instance, has announced plans to achieve between 10 and 40% of its emission reductions target for 2012 by planting forests.

Dolman says, “If the politicians had known in 1997 what we know now, they would never have agreed to its rules on carbon sinks?at least, I hope they wouldn’t.”

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