The concept of permanence or reversibility of emission reductions was a recurrent topic in the negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent trading schemes, standards and reporting methods.
While the term permanence is frequently cited as an essential feature of efforts to reduce emissions none of the key UNFCCC, IPCC or ISO documents gives a satisfactory definition of this important term. Many documents refer on to other sources for clarification, but tracing the links back gives limited satisfaction.
For example, the VCS lists permanence as one of its 8 core principles, but refers readers to ISO 14064, part 2 for a definition. For its part, ISO 14062, part 2, describes permanence, somewhat vaguely as:
“…a criterion to assess whether GHG removals and emission capture and storage are long-term, considering the longevity of a GHG reservoir or carbon pool and the stability of its stocks, given the management and disturbance environment in which it occurs.”
ISO then refers those seeking further clarity to a rather obscure document recording an agreement between parties negotiating the Kyoto Protocol, so called Decision 19/CP.9 . However, the relevant paragraphs (38 to 50) of this legal style agreement provide no explanation of permanence; instead they set out a complex set of temporary crediting rules devised to address the “non-permanence” of forestry and agriculture carbon in the CDM.
At this point the trail becomes confusing. The CP.9 document refers to work carried out by the IPCC (Special Report on Land Use, Land Use Change and Forests), which repeatedly states “there is no consideration of non-permanence…. because these items are under consideration by SBSTA”.
The literature indicates that the debate over permanence has focused almost exclusively on forest and other land use related activities, designed to increase stocks of carbon held in vegetation and soils. However, without a clearer definition, an examination of the underlying processes associated with GHG emissions shows many emission reducing activities could have permanence related issues. Here is a quick overview:
1. Renewable Energy, Fuel Switching
Permanence is rarely raised, however, the physical units of carbon (molecules in the fuel that is displaced) that would have been emitted in the absence of the low carbon energy supply are unlikely to be permanently sequestered. They are much more likely to be combusted by another fuel user. So a question arises as to whether renewable / low carbon energy represents permanent avoidance of emissions or a reduced rate of combustion of fossil fuel reserves. The delay in emissions is likely to be short if renewable energy supply depresses the price of fossil fuels, and the lower price consequently leads to increased consumption of fossil fuels in other jurisdictions.
2. Energy Efficiency
Similar issues arise for energy efficiency measures. The physical units of carbon which aren’t released because of an energy efficiency programme are unlikely to remain unused – and the question then arises of how long the emissions are delayed for.
3. Destruction or Avoidance of Fugitive Gases
The destruction of fugitive gases such as coal mine and landfill methane and industrial by-products may be genuinely permanent where there are finite quantities of precursor feedstocks. (Some of these processes raise questions of additionality, which is a separate issue). However, in the case of some N2O avoidance techniques there may be questions as to whether the nitrate is transported to other ecosystems where de-nitrification could occur.
Permanence is wielded as a powerful term in negotiations and regulation on GHG abatement but there is poor clarity on the detail of its meaning. Without a clearer definition the concept could be applied to almost any mitigation action.