Twelve years ago, as the Kyoto conference drew to a close, it was clear that the protocol had at least two gaping loopholes. One, dubbed “Russian hot air”, referred to the excessively high target negotiated by Russia.
A zero per cent increase in allowed emissions over 1990 levels by about 2010 would in fact permit a very large increase in Russian emissions because of the collapse of Soviet industry in the early 1990s. Russia’s emissions have still to return to their 1990 levels and the difference represents a large pool of surplus emission credits that can be sold on the international market.
This loophole is so big that it undoes much of the effort by Western European nations to cut their emissions under the protocol. The Russian surplus is enough to cause a collapse in the price of international emission permits should Russia decide to flood the market.
It was therefore with some excitement that the old hands at Copenhagen pricked up their ears when they heard a rumour that the Medvedev government is considering giving the world an early Christmas present by renouncing its surplus allowances awarded at Kyoto.
The second Kyoto loophole also took the form of a gift extracted from reluctant givers by a nation playing hard ball. At 2am on the Saturday morning, after the clock had been stopped to allow the conference to continue beyond its mandated closing time, the conference chair was gaveling through the treaty finally agreed.
In those dying minutes, when all else had been agreed and the thoughts of exhausted delegates turned to their beds, Australia’s environment minister, Robert Hill, rose to his feet and declared that Australia would refuse to join the consensus unless the parties agreed to include in the accounting carbon emissions from land-clearing.
The blackmail worked and article 3.7 was duly incorporated into the agreement. It was immediately dubbed “the Australia clause” because it would apply to no other country. As the delegates trooped out a senior European negotiator told the press that “the Australian deal is a disgrace and will have to be changed”.
Although it was to generate years of dissension, Robert Hill returned a hero to the Howard government, receiving a standing ovation at his first cabinet meeting after Kyoto. The reason for the bitterness abroad and the jubilation at home was the same. Emissions from land-clearing in Australia had declined sharply after 1990 due to changes in the economics of beef farming, so that the Australia clause turned Australia’s headline emissions target of an 8% increase into a de facto 30% increase in fossil emissions over the 1990-2010 period.
It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that before the last election the Howard government could claim that Australia would meet its Kyoto target even though it had implemented no policies that reduced emissions.
History matters in international climate negotiations. History builds or destroys trust. And what a nation has done in the past conditions how others receive what it proposes to do in the future. So the Australian delegation in Copenhagen, new as their faces are, should not be surprised if the rest of the world takes a jaundiced view of any arguments it advances for the treatment of land-based emissions, including forests.
At Copenhagen, a good deal of suspicion surrounds developed country proposals to meet emission reductions by the use of accounting tricks through provisions covering “land use, land-use change and forestry” or LULUCF (pronounced “loo loo CF”).
The G77 group of developing countries wants a cap on the ability of rich countries to meet any targets through changes in forest and land use instead of cutting fossil emissions. Australia is arguing that it should be able to count reforestation as a credit against fossil emissions but that emissions from cutting forests down should be excluded. So forests would be counted as a carbon sink but not a carbon source, a provision that would encourage intensified harvesting.
The desire to have it both ways naturally raises suspicions, and Australia’s track record with article 3.7 does not help.
The history of LULUCF should be remembered too when assessing Tony Abbott’s argument that the Opposition wants to refocus greenhouse policy on land-based emissions. It’s an excuse to do nothing about the real culprit, burning fossil fuels, deferring to the next generation the hard tasks, while pandering to a rural constituency that has reverted to its customary stance of angry whingeing and demands for special treatment.
In this case, the farmers want all the financial benefits to be had from augmenting land-based carbon stores — from tree-planting, changed tillage methods and biochar — while shirking responsibility for emissions from livestock, rice cultivation and fertiliser use.
Of course, when the agricultural sector does not pull its weight, it free-rides on the rest of the community, which has to do more to make up the difference. If the coalition gets its way, instead of referring to primary producers as “rural socialists” they will perhaps be better described as “climate bludgers”.