Over the coming week Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will attend the Copenhagen climate change conference and be hailed as one of the world leaders on climate-change action. The PM attends the meeting with Australia being one of a handful of developed countries to have met their Kyoto Treaty obligations. Australia’s Kyoto commitment was to limit the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions to 108% of 1990 levels.

The Carbongate “trick”

The trick is how Australia, with a rapidly growing economy over the past two decades, has been able to achieve this. Emissions from energy and transport have increased by 23% over 1990 levels. Australians might wonder how with our rapidly growing population and economy over the past two decades, as a nation we seemed to  be in a position to claim that we only increased our total emissions by 9%. Well, we haven’t. Our emissions have increased by 30% but thanks to the “carbongate” swindle we can claim it’s only 9%.

Here is the trick and it is not Rudd’s trick, it was actually the Liberal/National coalition Howard government’s master stoke. At the Kyoto negotiations in November 1997, Senator Robert Hill was able to negotiate into the agreement what controversially became known at the “Australian clause”.  Clive Hamilton documents the trickery of the coalition’s bargaining that brought about the inclusion of the Australia clause in his book Scorcher. Indeed he devotes a whole chapter to it — chapter six,  Drama at Kyoto. From page 72:

As emissions from land-clearing had decline sharply since 1990, their inclusion in the base year would give us a cushion of “free” emissions reductions. our fossil-fuel emissions would be able to increase to at least 120 percent of 1990 levels by 2010 while still coming in under overall target of 105 to 110% . The Australia clause represented a loophole in the Kyoto Protocol that a couple of Bulldozers with a chain between them could drive through.

The brilliant “win” for the federal government at Kyoto was  only the first part of the trick. To make it work the Howard government then had to stop private property owners land-clearing. Not only did they have to stop them but  as private property it had to be done at no cost to the Commonwealth. This in the face of the Constitution, which states that if the Commonwealth takes a private citizen’s property for its benefit it must compensate the citizen on “just terms”.

The Howard government then set about having the Carr and Beattie State Labor governments introduce vegetation management laws that effectively locked up 109 million hectares of privately owned land into the world’s largest privately owned carbon sink. The trick is with the native vegetation laws being passed by state governments under the Constitution, the state governments have no obligation to pay private landholders compensation. Brilliant, they’d created the world’s largest carbon sink — at no cost to the Commonwealth.

With the trick  now in place, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 22% when you add back in the 83.7 millions tonnes of CO2 that was not emitted from land that may have been cleared at no cost to the Commonwealth. This and this alone has allowed Australia to meet its Kyoto Protocol Treaty obligations and in doing so has saved the Commonwealth tens of billions of dollars in compliance penalties by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Australian family farmers have never been compensated  for this Kyoto “free kick” that the nation and in particular the energy and transport industries have received.

That is how the Liberal-National coalition government effectively  “stole” what has amounted to 83.7 million tonnes of carbon credits from private individual landholders and is the sole reason that today’s Labor Prime Minister can be heralded as a true warrior of climate change with Australia having met its Kyoto obligation — cost free.

Climate change minister Penny Wong being interviewed in Copenhagen on the ABC’s 7.30 Report admitted that the only reason Australia was able to claim it had met its Kyoto commitments was thanks to the blanket ban on broad scale land clearing.

I think what you’re referring to is the way we account for emissions from land clearing, which was agreed at the Kyoto Protocol. And Australia did respond to that. We did reduce our land clearing. We took active steps, particularly in Queensland, and Queensland is to be congratulated for fact that the reduction in land clearing in that state and also NSW has reduced Australia’s national emissions.

The affected Australian family farmers are not celebrating their contribution.  The impact on the relatively few citizens who have been asked to bear this enormous burden should outrage each and every fair-minded citizen of this country.

The lock-up of their land has caused great hardship and driven many devastated landholders to desperate measures including suicides. A symbol of the despair and desperation felt by those carrying the nation’s entire Kyoto burden is New South Wales farmer Peter Spencer, who is in the 20th day of a hunger strike on a two-metre platform high up a 100-metre tower on his property just outside of Canberra.

Spencer says that federal government has declared his 5385-hectare property a carbon sink without compensating him. Spencer had never wanted to clear his land, but under the vegetation management act the entire property is rendered off limits to any form of development.

Read the rest of the report here.