A few weeks ago, federal environment minister Ian Campbell was still confident that despite Australia’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, the target originally negotiated by Robert Hill’s delegation at Kyoto in 1997 – an increase of 8% over 1990 levels – would be met. It is worth noting that only Iceland – which produces power geothermally – was allowed a larger increase (10%).

Now it emerges in an Australian Greenhouse Office report that, on the basis of current projections, Australia will come in 1% above its negotiated target. This doesn’t seem like a lot, particularly given that many countries that have ratified Kyoto are unlikely to meet their emissions targets. Last year Canada’s emissions were 20% higher than 1990 levels, and Japan’s not looking too good either.

But in Australia’s case there are good reasons to be particular. A bit of history should illustrate.

On 11th December 1997, Australia’s Kyoto delegation secured a further concession with the inclusion of what has often been referred to as the “Australia clause” in Article 3.7 of the Protocol. This allows Annex 1 nations for whom land use change and forestry represented a net emissions source in 1990 to include this amount in the 1990 national emissions inventory for the purposes of calculating their agreed target.

The amendment was passed at 1:00am in the final weary stages of the negotiations, when few of the other member nations were reportedly familiar with the amendment text and were unaware of its implications. Owing largely to high historical rates of land clearance, the provision applied almost exclusively to Australia, though to a lesser extent also to Britain and Estonia.

The upshot is that Australia has been able to allow its emissions from fossil fuel sectors to blow out as controls on land clearing have reduced emissions from that sector by 75.6Mt or nearly 60% (most notably in Queensland, where they’ve traditionally had a thing for tree stumps). Between 1990 and 2004, by the AGO’s own estimates (see graph), stationary energy generation emissions grew by 84Mt CO2e or 42%, and transport by 14.5Mt or 23.4%. This is projected to rise to 56% and 40%, respectively, by 2010.

This isn’t to say that land clearing controls aren’t welcome, but for one thing, there were other reasons that the controls were being implemented in the 90s anyway (eg. concerns about degradation of land and biodiversity, reduced land availability and slowed growth in some agricultural sectors), so to suggest that this was primarily a greenhouse initiative would be stretching it.

For another thing, the premise of equivalence between fossil fuel emissions and land clearing emissions is shaky. Vegetation can at least theoretically be restored so that some portion of the carbon lost from ecosystems can be refixed. There’s presently no good way to put fossil carbon emitted to the atmosphere back into the ground, except via the process that put it there initially, which, for Victoria’s relatively young lignite, is somewhere around 15-50 million years.

One small positive is that the very modest emissions abatement measures already in place or being implemented are projected to reduce emissions by around 87Mt. Under a “business as usual” scenario, emissions are projected to have risen to 125% by 2010. But “could have done worse” shouldn’t be mistaken for ‘did well’.

Since Australia never ratified the Kyoto agreement, the minister would have been better off not even speculating about Australia meeting its targets. But the argument was required to demonstrate that Kyoto was unnecessary. The minister still hopes to rein in emissions to achieve the 108% target, but given the concession of the “Australia clause”, the failure to hit it, even if only 1% out, would say little for the government’s aim.