Don’t pay too much attention to the emission abatement targets coming out of Cancun at the end of the week. They may not mean much.

When Australia’s climate change minister Greg Combet joins the high level round of talks that kick off this week, one of his key briefs will be to play his part in one the biggest negotiating stings since the Kyoto Protocol numbers were agreed to in 1997.

He will not be alone. While then environment minister Robert Hill had the element of surprise when he pulled one of the great negotiating coups by getting avoided land clearing included in Australia’s Kyoto numbers, Combet will enjoy an air of complicity: other rich nations are looking to employ similar accounting gymnastics — if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

This is no secret. The UN Environment Program issued a detailed report last week that said accounting rorts from “hot air” from eastern Europe and land use rules could add up to more than two billion tonnes by 2020. The EU has complained they could undermine the entirety of their emission reductions since 1990.

A study by Simon Terry, the executive director of the New Zealand Sustainability Council, goes further. Terry says that by adding in aviation and shipping — which are not accounted for under the Copenhagen Accord — the pledges may turn out to produce an increase in global emissions of 3% from 1990 levels, rather than an advertised fall of up to 18%.

This compares to IPCC estimates that if nations were serious about producing a 2 degree target, they would need to cut emissions by 25-40%. “The implications of the nature and scale of the loopholes is extraordinary,” Terry says. “It shows they are not serious about meeting conditions required to avoid dangerous climate change.” Greenpeace campaigner Paul Winn agrees. “It’s all about meeting targets.”

One of the key negotiating points for Combet will be to protect the so-called Australia clause — article 3.7 in the Kyoto Protocol — which gave Australia an effective mandate to increase its emissions by 28% through to 2012, something it has had no problem achieving. Retaining this clause will add to considerably to the Labor government’s ability to either meet its 5% unconditional target, or even be more ambitious. Some say this and other loopholes being sought by Australia could account for up to one third of the emission reductions required for a 25% target.

To help achieve this, Australia will not rock the boat over the issue of “hot air”, the estimated 1.3 billion surplus credits created by the huge overestimation of economic growth in Russia, Ukraine and other eastern Europe countries.

Australia — along with New Zealand, Canada, Russia, Norway and several well-treed EU countries — is also at the heart of highly contentious negotiations on land use and forestry in a mechanism called LuLuCF. This seeks to define accounting rules for complex issues such as forest and rangeland management, droughts and bushfires.

But the controversy here stems from proposed “reference baselines”, which allow a country to set its own forestry targets and then claim credits for doing less. UNEP estimates such “lenient” accounting in LuLuCF alone could undermine the Copenhagen pledges by up to 800 million tonnes of CO2e.

Poor countries have been outraged, but the opposition of some has been muted by suggestions that a similar loophole could be afforded the REDD+ mechanism, which applies to forests in developing countries. The opposition of groups such as AOSIS (the Association of Small Island States) — which is fighting for a 1.5 degree target — has been fractured by reported promises to invest in carbon capture and storage in some nations if CCS is included in the Clean Development Mechanism.

It seems that in the spirit of “compromise” and a “balanced outcome” that is the ambition of the Cancun talks, deals are being struck everywhere. The justification for this is that if agreement on several building blocks can be achieved, then the process can stay alive, hopefully with greater integrity in the future.

Green groups are trying desperately to limit the damage through intensive lobbying of negotiators, but there is a fall back position. Under the insistence of the UN — which clearly recognises the problem — the texts to be negotiated in the coming week by ministers will allow for a review of the Copenhagen pledges between 2013 and 2015.

This is significant. If retained, it will allow the review to not just take into account the latest science that will roll out from the IPCCC during that time, but also what UNEP describes as “gigatonne gap” — the difference between what the parties have aimed for (2 degrees) and agreed to do (3-5 degrees) and the impact of hot air and LuLuCF — heading towards 6 degrees and 7 degrees. There is also an agreement to consider aiming for a target below 2 degrees.

The priority, however, is the need to obtain an agreement to continue meeting — hence the importance of a “positive” Cancun outcome.

*Read the rest of this article — and more from Cancun — on Climate Spectator