Growth in greenhouse gas emissions from Australia’s energy sector is out of control, exceeding by nearly eight times the average growth in emissions from other developed nations, according to researchers at the ANU.

Between 1990 and 2004, emissions from the Australian energy sector grew by 38% compared with a rise of only 5% for other developed nations that are parties to Kyoto.

Although Australia is likely to meet its Kyoto target in 2010, Crikey understands that emissions across all sectors will have risen 16% between the time the Howard government was first elected in 1996 and the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol in 2010 – a rise that is double our Kyoto target. By 2020, that figure will have risen to 34%.

But that doesn’t mean claims by Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull that Australia will meet or only slightly exceed its Kyoto targets have been misleading, says Philip Gibbons, senior research fellow at the ANU’s Fenner School of Environment and Society.

“It’s true. He’s not lying,” Gibbons told Crikey. “But it’s not a black and white thing. It doesn’t equate to us being a leader or a good performance on climate change. And that’s for three good reasons. One is we’ve got a very generous target. Two is that the Kyoto Protocol was adjusted to suit our position. And three, since we signed Kyoto our emissions have continued to grow virtually unabated.”

In October Crikey reported on the favourable position that Australian negotiated for itself under Kyoto. This report shows how rampant land-clearing in 1990 (the baseline year for Kyoto targets) and some hard-nosed negotiating at Kyoto makes it possible for the minister to claim today that Australia is meeting it targets under Kyoto. Ten years since Kyoto came into being, Gibbons argues that it now represents a lost opportunity.

“When we signed the Kyoto Protocol we had a 6% reduction in emissions straight away. It gave us a buffer to implement some enduring but slow changes to our energy sector. That’s a really good platform to gradually implement changes in greenhouse reductions. But the opposite has been the case.”

Gibbons adds that the Government’s own figures across all sectors show Australia’s emissions will grow to be 27% greater than 1990 levels, which creates problems of compliance and significant costs for all sectors of the community in meeting anything like a 60% reduction in emissions — the Stern target — by 2050.

“It’s getting harder and harder overnight. As we go on, the change has to be greater. The targets for the reductions in emissions are getting stiffer as we learn more about climate change. Whoever’s in power after Saturday has a massive challenge.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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