“We’ve done an enormous amount on climate change Helen… just look at the objective facts,” Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Sky this morning.

Kyoto. We are one of the very few developed countries that is going to meet its Kyoto target. Now Japan will miss its target by a long way, Canada by an enormous amount, New Zealand will miss it. So if targets are an issue, we have set ourselves a target, 108% of 1990 emissions by 2008/ 2012 and we’re going to meet that. Our harshest critics, by the way, say we’ll miss it by 1%, so that gives you an idea of how well we’re tracking.

Crikey took the Environment Minister’s advice and looked at the objective facts. It helps to have a long memory during election campaigns, so Crikey revisited the original Kyoto negotiations.

Before ultimately refusing to ratify Kyoto in 2002, Australia negotiated a target back in 1997 which allowed an increase in Australia’s greenhouse emissions by eight per cent above 1990 levels. Led by then Environment Minister Robert Hill, the Australian delegation also refused to sign at the last minute unless a special loophole on land clearing was created for Australia alone.

“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,” wrote Crikey climate change correspondent Ian McHugh last year.

“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.”

Under the Kyoto Protocol, 1990 was the year set as the baseline for assessing greenhouse gas emission targets for each country. In 1990 in Australia, unusually large tracts of land were cleared, mainly in Queensland. Australia’s land clearing rate was so high at the time, its emissions were also unusually high in 1990 because land clearing releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Since 1990, Australia’s rate of land clearing (and its emissions from this) has dropped dramatically.

At the Kyoto negotiations, Australia made sure that the enormous 1990 emissions from land clearing were counted in its emissions baseline, resulting in Australia’s average emissions appearing very high. This meant that the government would have to do little to actively reduce emissions in the future. Rather than reduce emissions from fossil fuel sources, Australia could use the drop in emissions from land clearing to show that we were meeting our emissions reduction target.

As McHugh pointed out, “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% … Between 1990 and 2004, … 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.”

Back in 97, John Anderson, then Federal Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, was so happy with the Kyoto negotiation results that he sent out a press release entitled “Farm Interests Preserved at Kyoto”:

The Kyoto agreement permitting Australia an 8% increase in emissions of 6 greenhouse gases by 2012 over 1990 levels will preserve the interests of farmers, miners, manufacturing industry and the economy in general.

So while Robert Hill’s work in 1997 in negotiating a generous target, based on unrepresentative emissions figures, was primarily a bid to keep industry happy, fast forward ten years and Malcolm Turnbull uses it to boast about meeting our targets today under the veil of being contentious about climate change.

But as Turnbull pointed out this morning, the government’s “harshest critics, by the way, say we’ll miss it by 1%.” By Turnbull’s reasoning, “… that gives you an idea of how well we’re tracking.” 

The Environment Minister should know that one per cent may not be much if you’re counting fat content, but when it comes to counting carbon emissions that’s pretty significant.  

And it wasn’t his harshest critics who originally pointed this out, it was the government report “2006 Tracking to the Kyoto Target“, released in December 2006:

Current analysis projects Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions at 109% of the 1990 emissions level over the period 2008-12, which is slightly above the 108% Kyoto target.

John Connor of The Climate Institute told Crikey this morning, “The only reason we’re with within cooee of the targets is because of the land clearing and that’s primarily the work of the state governments. “…particularly because of a poor policy framework on energy, our emissions are heading towards our target sometime this year, two years earlier than it should.”

“We shouldn’t be celebrating an increase in pollution, which is what our Kyoto target is. The critical thing is what will the parties be doing to reverse our still rising greenhouse pollution? And that needs to be reversed within the next five years with substantial reductions by 2020.”

Crikey will be studying the substance behind the soundbite throughout the election. If there’s any statement from any politician that you’d like combed through, email [email protected].