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Environment

Dec 10, 2009

Hamilton at Copenhagen: Lulu’s back in town

The Australian delegation in Copenhagen should not be surprised if the rest of the world takes a jaundiced view of any arguments it advances for the treatment of land-based emissions, based on our past Kyoto behaviour.

Twelve years ago, as the Kyoto conference drew to a close, it was clear that the protocol had at least two gaping loopholes. One, dubbed “Russian hot air”, referred to the excessively high target negotiated by Russia.

A zero per cent increase in allowed emissions over 1990 levels by about 2010 would in fact permit a very large increase in Russian emissions because of the collapse of Soviet industry in the early 1990s. Russia’s emissions have still to return to their 1990 levels and the difference represents a large pool of surplus emission credits that can be sold on the international market.

This loophole is so big that it undoes much of the effort by Western European nations to cut their emissions under the protocol. The Russian surplus is enough to cause a collapse in the price of international emission permits should Russia decide to flood the market.

It was therefore with some excitement that the old hands at Copenhagen pricked up their ears when they heard a rumour that the Medvedev government is considering giving the world an early Christmas present by renouncing its surplus allowances awarded at Kyoto.

The second Kyoto loophole also took the form of a gift extracted from reluctant givers by a nation playing hard ball. At 2am on the Saturday morning, after the clock had been stopped to allow the conference to continue beyond its mandated closing time, the conference chair was gaveling through the treaty finally agreed.

In those dying minutes, when all else had been agreed and the thoughts of exhausted delegates turned to their beds, Australia’s environment minister, Robert Hill, rose to his feet and declared that Australia would refuse to join the consensus unless the parties agreed to include in the accounting carbon emissions from land-clearing.

The blackmail worked and article 3.7 was duly incorporated into the agreement. It was immediately dubbed “the Australia clause” because it would apply to no other country. As the delegates trooped out a senior European negotiator told the press that “the Australian deal is a disgrace and will have to be changed”.

Although it was to generate years of dissension, Robert Hill returned a hero to the Howard government, receiving a standing ovation at his first cabinet meeting after Kyoto. The reason for the bitterness abroad and the jubilation at home was the same. Emissions from land-clearing in Australia had declined sharply after 1990 due to changes in the economics of beef farming, so that the Australia clause turned Australia’s headline emissions target of an 8% increase into a de facto 30% increase in fossil emissions over the 1990-2010 period.

It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that before the last election the Howard government could claim that Australia would meet its Kyoto target even though it had implemented no policies that reduced emissions.

History matters in international climate negotiations. History builds or destroys trust. And what a nation has done in the past conditions how others receive what it proposes to do in the future. So the Australian delegation in Copenhagen, new as their faces are, should not be surprised if the rest of the world takes a jaundiced view of any arguments it advances for the treatment of land-based emissions, including forests.

At Copenhagen, a good deal of suspicion surrounds developed country proposals to meet emission reductions by the use of accounting tricks through provisions covering “land use, land-use change and forestry” or LULUCF (pronounced “loo loo CF”).

The G77 group of developing countries wants a cap on the ability of rich countries to meet any targets through changes in forest and land use instead of cutting fossil emissions. Australia is arguing that it should be able to count reforestation as a credit against fossil emissions but that emissions from cutting forests down should be excluded. So forests would be counted as a carbon sink but not a carbon source, a provision that would encourage intensified harvesting.

The desire to have it both ways naturally raises suspicions, and Australia’s track record with article 3.7 does not help.

The history of LULUCF should be remembered too when assessing Tony Abbott’s argument that the Opposition wants to refocus greenhouse policy on land-based emissions. It’s an excuse to do nothing about the real culprit, burning fossil fuels, deferring to the next generation the hard tasks, while pandering to a rural constituency that has reverted to its customary stance of angry whingeing and demands for special treatment.

In this case, the farmers want all the financial benefits to be had from augmenting land-based carbon stores — from tree-planting, changed tillage methods and biochar — while shirking responsibility for emissions from livestock, rice cultivation and fertiliser use.

Of course, when the agricultural sector does not pull its weight, it free-rides on the rest of the community, which has to do more to make up the difference. If the coalition gets its way, instead of referring to primary producers as “rural socialists” they will perhaps be better described as “climate bludgers”.

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17 comments

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17 thoughts on “Hamilton at Copenhagen: Lulu’s back in town

  1. Most Peculiar Mama

    Clive,

    Now that you are no longer a politician…we would love to hear your opinion on the growing dissent amongst the scientific – and general – community around alleged man-made global warming and the significant damage being wrought on the Copnehagen conference objectives by the disgraceful ClimateGate scandal.

    Surely you’ve heard of it?

  2. Frank Campbell

    Is Crikey going to shove this evangelical tosser down our throat EVERY day?

  3. Roger Clifton

    Farmers need alternative transport fuels. Diesel is a major item of any farmer’s budget. For that matter, pretty well anyone working in a primary industry or in remote Australia is vulnerable to a carbon tax on fossil-carbon-based transport fuels. The rural lobby seems set on evading such price pressures.

    Whereas city folk may anticipate battery-powered vehicles, compressed gas or hydrazine-based fuel cells, someone who wants to bring live cattle to market wants some sort of liquid hydrocarbon for his old truck.

    Methanol is a practical alternative fuel, with our modern fleet can be readily converted. However, its production and distribution requires government planning, not evasion.

  4. MichaelK99

    One would have thought that those who don’t like what Clive has to say would have the common sense just to skip his articles.

    What I find incredibly tiresome is that the comments threads in Crikey are far too often filled with comments from the climate change deniers. We know that you don’t agree, so why do you have to keep saying it again and again.

    In my opinion no denier has added any new information or thoughts to this debate. It’s just repeating the same old rubbish.

    And this going around in circles makes it a waste of time to read the comments on Crikey as it is just the same people saying the same thing, usually with little mention of the original article.

    I would love it if Crikey one day (soon) decided that it is no longer appropriate to waste everybody’s time with more of the same climate change denial rubbish in threads such as this.

    Crikey should set up a forum for discussing whether or not climate change is true. No censoring the debate. Just putting it in one place so that those who have already make up their minds can, if they wish, ignore it.

    The moderators should then delete such discussions from threads such as this.

    This would then open up the comments for some interesting discussion.

  5. D. John Hunwick

    Australia’s action on climate change (as against its words) is abysmal. Not only did we negotiate a special clause at Kyoto, we then refused to sign the protocol anyway. NO developed nation has done as much to derail action on climate change as my own bloody country. The only place for forests in negotiation is their continued protection with maybe some credit for extending them. UNtil the world reduces use of coal, oil and gas the danger of climate change increases. As for the Australian agriculture sector, the more they are protected the greater the burden the rest of us. It seems that poeple action in the coming months will be required to bring home to politicians that we want more ation than they are prepared to support.

  6. Frank Campbell

    MichaelK99: Same old authoritarianism…silence dissent, or send it to the sand-pit out the back.

    I didn’t want this wave of religious fervour to monopolise everyone’s attention. Blame the cult. So much else I’d rather be doing, but while the ETS/MRET and the cult hold sway, I’ll attack them. And the proto-Fascist tendencies they encourage.

    And I’m not a “denier” BTW. But I am a Greens voter.

  7. Joe Hoogland

    A carbon tax would eliminate most of these thorny issues of offsets, accounting tricks, allowing for the “might have occureds” as real savings etc. A carbon tax where part of the revenue was returned to those farmers who created carbon storage would give farmers another crop choice. Land clearing can be included in this scheme. If the ETS is the worldwide scheme of choice, let’s join in.

    It would also prevent developed nations trading pollution rights with under developed countries.

    But the more I compare a carbon tax against an ETS, the more I favour the former. Perhaps someone can provide me with a case against a carbon tax, other than that the world is well down the path of global ETS?

  8. Most Peculiar Mama

    @MichaelK99

    “…The moderators should then delete such discussions from threads such as this…”

    Indeed.

    We should all discuss only what YOU want to discuss and only if YOU agree with the topic.

    ‘…This would then open up the comments for some interesting discussion…”

    Pretty hard to have a ‘discussion’ when everyone is nodding in furious agreement.

    Is the above rant representative of the type of ‘discussion’ you offer the Crikey community?

    Spare me please.

  9. stephen

    Dear Roger, doesn’t methanol require the turning over of huge swathes of food producing land tofuel production?. Meat is already a very inefficent food source in terms of co2 and water. Powering it’s production with bio-fuels might not be such a good idea.