Kyoto Land

By Henry Lamb
web posted November 1, 1999

BONN - Kyoto Land. Get used to it. What is it? That's what delegates from more than 150 nations are trying to decide in Bonn, Germany. Entering the second week of negotiations, the delegates the U.N. global warming talks are finding precise definitions hard to come by.

Kyoto Land refers to land that may be identified as a "carbon sink." The Kyoto Protocol requires that "land use, land use change, and forests" (LULUCF) be included in determining how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere at any given time.

That means, simply, that land use, land use changes, and forest use and growth, must be monitored and reported to the United Nations. Exactly which lands and which forests are among the issues on which the delegates are finding it so difficult to reach agreement.

Then comes the question of measurements. How do you measure how much carbon is absorbed by a tree, or a forest, or a pasture? At what point in a tree's life does it stop absorbing carbon and begin to generate carbon?

Then, of course, there is the question of what to do with the information, assuming that the other questions get resolved. A 1998 study published in Science, a highly regarded scientific journal, reported that carbon sinks in North America absorbed more carbon dioxide than was produced by human activity. Which, if correct, seems to negate the purpose of the Protocol altogether.

But wait, Richard Houghton at the Woods Hole Research Center, claims that the study is flawed, and he conducted a study that reported only 10 to 30 percent of man-made carbon to be absorbed by the sinks. So goes the to-and-fro of scientific debate surrounding the entire global warming controversy.

The scientific controversy seems to be irrelevant to the negotiators. What's important is agreeing on which lands are going to be monitored, how the monitoring will be conducted and reported uniformly among the nations, and how much, if any, credit is given to nations that have vast carbon sinks.

All of this would be painfully boring if it were not for the fact that whatever decisions are taken regarding Kyoto Lands, will have direct impact upon landowners in America.

In America, it would not seem improper at all for a land owner to ask what business the United Nations has snooping around on his property counting trees and cows and measuring how much the grass has grown, At these U.N. meetings, it's almost unthinkable that a private land user would dare question the government about anything. In fact, a nations that permits its citizens to ask such impertinent questions is likely to be labeled as breeding "xenophobic nationalism."

The fact is that most of America is a carbon sink. By any definition of carbon sinks yet proposed at these meetings, most of America will become Kyoto Lands. Exactly what that means to private land owners has yet to be determined. The very fact, however, that thousands of international diplomats and NGO (non-government organization) observers, are spending tons of tax dollars meeting in Bonn, discussing the consequences of land use and land use changes in America, should make blood pressure rise among the ranks of private land owners.

The use of private land has already been severely constricted by wetlands, kangaroo rat lands, "Legacy" lands, heritage lands, viewshed lands, and open-space lands. All of these constrictions have come about, directly or indirectly, as a result of United Nations policies. The addition of Kyoto lands may be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Americans have no quarrel with protecting the environment. Conserving energy is prudent, and won't hurt even if there is no such thing as global warming. Americans don't even mind if the White House squanders a few hundred million sending delegates to all these U.N. meetings. But there is a limit to patience, and there is a point beyond which caution becomes absurd. Kyoto land could well be that point.

It is one thing to increase taxes. Americans grumble, and then pay. It's another thing to impose restrictions on land use. Americans grumble, but unless they are personally affected, they go on about their business. Kyoto Land, by its very nature, is likely to stir up a hornet's nest so ferocious that delegates to future U.N. meetings may choose to stay home.

Few delegates know the feeling that comes over a person who has worked all his life to own a piece of land in America. Nor can they have any appreciation for the feeling that inspires a land owner when he watches the sun rise above that land, to announce a new day of opportunity. Nor can they have any understanding of the investment in time and effort, sweat and blood, a land owner willingly puts into "his" land. Most importantly, few delegates can possibly have any comprehension of the extent to which a land owner may go to protect his land.

In America, there is an unwritten, rarely spoken, code of ethics among land owners: don't mess with my family, and don't mess with my land.

America is not only the land of the free, it is still the home of the brave. Whenever the challenge is sufficient, the brave will do whatever it takes to keep the land free. The challenge presented by Kyoto Lands may be sufficient.

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization and chairman of Sovereignty International. He is filing daily updates from COP5 until the end of this week.

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