While the emissions trading debate has been preoccupied with the effect on Australia of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the Rudd Government’s approach has implications for poor countries.

The CPRS allows Australia’s big polluters unlimited opportunity to avoid cutting emissions at home by investing in projects in other countries and the Rudd Government is pushing hard to allow this to include buying credits for avoided deforestation in places like PNG, Indonesia and the Solomon islands.

This offshore compliance not only relieves polluters in Australia from the need to cut their emissions, but means that the cheapest and easiest emission abatement opportunities in poor countries will be swallowed up early.

When at some point poor countries take on emission reduction obligations their low-hanging fruit will have been harvested by our big polluters, leaving poor countries with more expensive options.

Moreover, by allowing polluters to export their emission obligations in this way, the domestic cap will not induce the structural change to our energy systems that is essential to a low-carbon future. Among other effects, this will mean slower technical progress leaving us in a weaker position to provide technological assistance to developing countries later on.

The targets rich countries set have profound implications for climate justice. Low targets will almost certainly mean greater obligations on poor countries later on. This explains the dismay overseas when the Rudd Government announced it would commit to emission cuts of only 5%.

Attacked for the lack of ambition in its initial proposal, the Government announced that there are circumstances under which it would be willing to mandate a 25% cut in Australia’s emissions by 2020. The revised scheme managed to persuade some environment groups to support the CPRS.

There is zero chance of the conditions for a 25% target being met, but if by some miracle they were, it would in some respects be a great achievement. But it is unlikely to satisfy developing countries that are torn between the looming catastrophes of climate change and the urgent need to alleviate poverty.

What has been forgotten in this debate is the rationale for the IPCC’s 25-40% rich country target that has set the terms for the global debate. If the world is to have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 2°C, these are the emission cuts below 1990 levels that climate scientists say rich countries must aim for, while developing countries at the same time begin to reduce the growth of their emissions.

The gap between 25% and 40% reflects not scientific uncertainty, but differing assumptions about a fair allocation of emission cuts between rich and poor countries over the next several decades.

The 25% target emerges from a framework built on ‘grandfathering’, that is, giving dispensation to rich countries to pollute at higher levels because of their high levels of emissions in the past. This model means that poor countries will need to cut their emissions by more when they take on emission reduction obligations, probably after 2020.

A more equitable model pushes rich countries up to 40% cuts. So aiming for 25% is the least-fair option because, if the world is aiming to avoid average temperatures rising by more than 2°C, it will probably require the largest subsequent reductions by poorer countries.

And if aiming for 2°C is judged too hard — the conclusion of the Garnaut and Stern reports, and the Rudd Government — who will suffer most from climate change? Poor people in poor countries, of course.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey