The US government, businesses and environmental groups have launched what they claim is the first consistent accounting and reporting guidelines for tracking emissions of greenhouse gases by businesses.

Called the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, this standardised system hopes to attract international attention although its implementation is voluntary. Many environmentalists, however, argue that mandatory emission controls are the only way to ensure the reduction of greenhouse gases.

The new standard was developed over three years, in consultation with over 350 corporations and government officials from several countries and, it is claimed, in cooperation with international environmental groups. The protocol has been tested by more than 30 companies in nine countries including Ford, Dow Chemical Canada, General Motors Corp, IBM, Norsk Hydro, Shell Canada, Tokyo Electric Power Co and Volkswagen.

Under the guidelines, a company is required to report on direct greenhouse gas emissions from sources that it owns and controls. These would include emissions resulting from chemical or physical processing; form the production of electricity or heat and from transportation. Indirect emissions associated with the generation of imported or purchased electricity, heat or steam would also be included. Emissions from products such as vehicles produced by Ford or Volkswagen could also be included.

The object of the guidelines is to provide accounting and reporting systems that can be used for a future emissions trading scheme. Many companies would prefer a voluntary scheme and an international emissions trading system to a scheme based on mandatory limits.

While environmental groups are in favour of any action that will encourage the reduction of greenhouse emissions, many want stronger action. Friends of the Earth said that while it welcomed voluntary initiatives, mandatory reduction targets are still needed. Ten years of voluntary initiatives have been unsuccessful, a spokesman said.

Voluntary emission targets were agreed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro but virtually all signatories failed to meet their targets. Under the Kyoto Protocol, recently ratified by 165 countries, but not including the USA, mandatory targets have been agreed. (Full story, page 3.) There is a financial interest in establishing an international emissions trading market. Estimates have put its annual value at between $25 billion and $700 billion.