Billions of dollars are being wasted in the international carbon trading system and companies have been discouraged from investing in lower-carbon technologies owing to a loophole in the Kyoto protocol.

The Financial Times revealed last month that a few Chinese factories and carbon traders were making large profits by exploiting the regulations in the protocol surrounding a potent greenhouse gas, HFC-23.

By installing cheap equipment, the companies could gain “carbon credits” which they could sell for hundreds of millions of dollars.

According to a study published on the 8th Feb 2007 in the journal Nature, about �.6bn ($5.9bn, £3bn) could have been saved through closing this loophole, and instead spending �00m on a simple measure that would eliminate large quantities of the gas.

Under the Kyoto protocol, developed countries must cut their emissions by an average of 5 per cent compared with 1990 levels by 2012. As well as reducing their own emissions, they can invest in projects in developing countries that reduce emissions there through a system of carbon trading.

These projects, ranging from wind farms and hydro-electric dams to systems that capture methane from pig farms, are granted “carbon credits” for each tonne of carbon dioxide, or its equivalent, that is avoided. The idea is that global emissions are reduced and developing countries benefit by gaining access to technology they would not otherwise be able to afford.

But chemical factories producing the HFC-23 gas can reduce their emissions using a simple piece of equipment called a scrubber. This is cheap – it can cost a few million dollars for an average-sized factory – but because HFC-23 is so potent, companies receive thousands of carbon credits for reducing a few tonnes of the gas. One tonne of HFC-23 is thought to have the same warming impact on the climate as 11,700 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

As a result, HFC-23 pro-jects have been the biggest single source of credits on the carbon market although, as there are a limited number of factories producing the gas, they will make up a smaller share in future.

On the 8th Feb 2007’s study is the first to put a figure on how much that has cost, and to work out an alternative. Michael Wara, formerly of Stanford University and author of the study, said that instead of including HFC-23 in the Kyoto protocol, development banks or other funders could have funded the installation of scrubbers at a global cost of �00m, thereby saving �.6bn that could have been invested in projects to generate clean energy.

Mr Wara concluded that the carbon markets had failed to persuade China to switch from coal to gas, or to more efficient coal power stations.

“Future emissions scenarios suggest that unless China and India can be convinced to build mostly efficient, low-carbon-emitting electricity generating plants from natural gas rather than coal over the next one to two decades, little can be done to stem the tide of global climate change,” he said.

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