Many environmental scientists dispute a provision of the Kyoto Protocol that allows nations to trade designated "carbon sink" forest reserves for additional carbon emissions, and voice concerns that the substitution rule isn't helpful and will only encourage continued emission patterns.
A carbon sink is anything—geological formations, forests, oceans—that absorbs and holds more atmospheric carbon than it emits. By designating forested land as a carbon sink, a government is agreeing to protect the land from deforestation and development. As these areas are a natural part of the carbon cycle, their protection helps stabilize the system thrown off-kilter by industrial emissions.
In practice, however, designating carbon sinks may lead to larger social problems. Several activist groups are reporting increased occurrences of human rights violations near established carbon sinks in developing countries, including forced relocation and unfairly low salaries for those employed to care for the forests. Even more so, a "trade-off" doesn't encourage industrialized nations to actually cut back on what they emit. The Forests and European Union Resource Network (FERN)
is part of a growing effort to spread more complete carbon sink information and education. The group insists that carbon sink trade-offs miss the point: "Establishing a carbon sink justifies a carbon emission that would otherwise not have occurred because it would have put the user of fossil fuel over its emission allowance under the Kyoto Protocol."
The carbon sink provision seems to be encouraging nations to find novel places to bury their carbon emissions, rather than cutting back. For example, the United States' proposed "near-zero emissions" coal factory FutureGen plans to pump its emissions into underground saline formations, though researchers caution that we don't yet know enough about the potential consequences.
—Gabrielle E. Montanez