Everyone’s claiming bragging rights about Australia meeting its Kyoto target. In parliament yesterday Prime Minister Rudd hailed our official ratification of Kyoto with the news that we are now on track to meet our Kyoto target of 108% of 1990 emissions by 2012.

The Department of Climate Change talked it up too. Then Brendan Nelson chimed in, backed by Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment and Urban Water, Greg Hunt, who also claimed credit. Finally, that longtime climate change devotee, now a regular on the Washington speaker circuit, told a bunch of Americans that he’s very “proud” of meeting the target, unlike Europeans, (not that he would’ve ratified the thing, mind you.)

Which is all a bit suss really. It suggests that the substance behind the soundbite hasn’t changed from one government to the next.

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Even if the Rudd government has succeeded in slicing off the extra 1% that we were set to exceed our target by (according to the Greenhouse office), the truth is, our Kyoto target is a croc. It was soft when we negotiated it back in 1997, and it’s still soft. In fact, it allows us to keep polluting.

Here’s the back story, as outlined by Crikey in October last year: 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 8% 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.

Australia’s Kyoto delegation secured 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 when calculating their agreed target.

The last minute amendment, passed after midnight in the final stages of the negotiations, meant that the provision applied almost exclusively to Australia. The land clearing loophole presented a huge opportunity for Australia because 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 that its emissions were also unusually high (land clearing releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere). Since 1990, Australia’s rate of land clearing has dropped dramatically.

But not before the enormous 1990 emissions from land clearing could be counted in Australia’s emissions baseline. This meant that, rather than reducing 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. 

Which is why at the same time that we’re on track to meet our target, our emissions from electricity and transport had soared by more than 50% and 40%.                               

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 Former Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull used it to boast about meeting our targets. Unhappily, the Rudd government is now doing the same thing.

Senator Wong and Prime Minister Rudd went out of their way yesterday to say that the Kyoto Protocol was just the first step and that much more needed to be done. And the Rudd government knows the story behind Australia’s soft target, so why keep peddling the spin?  And why not aim higher, or lower as the case may be?

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Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

We’ve pushed our journalism as far as we could go. And that’s only been possible with reader support. Thank you. And if you haven’t yet subscribed, this is your time to join tens of thousands of Crikey members to take the plunge.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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