Only hours into the fortnight-long Copenhagen conference and Australia is already being singled by NGOs out as a climate-change spoiler.

The conference opened to much fanfare in cloudy Copenhagen today —  with trumpets blasting and a choir performance from Danish youngsters plucked straight out of the latest Aryans R Us catalogue. The politicians and diplomats were there, too, warning that feel-good statements simply won’t cut it this time around.

“Time is up,” executive secretary of the United Nations climate change convention Yvo de Boer said. “Over the next two weeks governments have to deliver.”

Yet Damien Lawson, of Friends of the Earth Australia, said that Australia is already working behind the scenes to water down any potential deal. “It continues to push for expanded offset loopholes for polluters, recognition of carbon capture and storage and lowering the ambition for an extended Kyoto protocol,” he said.

Among the more contentious issues to be thrashed out over the next twelve days will be that of land use, land-use change and forestry —  known in UN babble as LULUCF. It may lack the technological s-xiness of solar panels, electric cars or “clean coal” but the sector makes up 9.4% of Australia’s total emissions.

Groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation are concerned that Australia’s LULUCF submissions includes two possible scenarios for measuring reductions: one based on 1990 levels and another based on so-called “forward looking baseline” (essentially business as usual).

Nothing is yet determined, but if the latter were to be adopted then the ACF estimates it would add some 33 million tonnes to Australia’s carbon footprint, an 8% increase on 1990 emissions.

“In other words,” the ACF’s Tony Mohr told Crikey, “the rules for land use emissions could make almost as much difference as Australia accepting a 15% or a 25% target”.

“We are worried that the government will try and make meeting our targets easier with a stroke of the pen that changes the rules.”

Let’s not forget the Howard government’s eleventh hour Kyoto Protocol wranglings that managed to insert the now infamous “Australia clause” into the final agreement — a loophole allowing reductions in land clearing from 1990 to count towards our baseline target. 1990 happened to be a year with unusually high levels of land clearing. Australian greenhouse gas emissions actually soared 23% from 1994 to 2004, but factor in a massive reduction in land clearing and voila: a spiffy-looking emissions rise of only 2.3%.

We fudged the figures. And the world knows it — this time round they’ve got their eye on us.

Peter Fray

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