With the attention focused on the budget, the government slipped through an arcane but important announcement on Wednesday that might make it much easier to reach our emissions reduction targets without even lifting a finger.

It involves a change to the way Australia’s emissions are accounted for, whereby cropland management, grazing land management and revegetation effects on carbon stores will now be counted toward Australia’s national emissions target. This is essentially the land-based carbon upon which the Coalition’s Direct Action budget costings are built.

In the past Australia chose to not include this land-based carbon because of concerns that these activities could deliver significant increases in emissions as a result of natural events like bushfire and drought. But changes to the Kyoto Protocol Mark II covering the 2013 to 2020 period have been recently agreed, which mean emissions that are the result of natural causes are no longer counted towards countries’ Kyoto targets.

In addition, the government has recently implemented a series of improvements to the way it estimates emissions from land activities. This will reduce the risk of emissions from fire and vegetation loss due to natural causes being counted for the second Kyoto target.

The Australian government has not released any data as yet that details how these carbon accounting changes would affect Australia’s emissions inventory. But Andrew MacIntosh, associate director of the Australian National University’s Centre for Climate Law and Policy, believes they would noticeably reduce Australia’s emissions relative to our 1990 emissions baseline.

For those not aware, the government’s (and opposition’s) emission reduction target of reducing emissions relative to 2000 level emissions has been subsequently translated to a target that is relative to 1990 emissions under our Kyoto MkII treaty obligations.

MacIntosh believes there have been a series of changes to Australian agricultural practices since 1990 that have acted to significantly increase the amount of carbon stored in crop and grazing land. As one example, “controlled traffic farming and minimum tillage practices have been widely adopted across Australia since 1990”. According to MacIntosh, changes to the Kyoto Protocol’s rules (for which Australia was a principal lobbyist) plus the accounting change “will ensure we get a significant quantity of credits for doing something we were already doing”.

In the end it seems doubtful the government would have changed its accounting rules unless it was confident it would improve our emissions performance relative to 1990 levels. The issue is more about just how big a change it delivers.

Of course, there is nothing sinister about improving the comprehensiveness of our carbon accounting methods. But there is a real problem if the current Labor government, or future Coalition government, intends to keep with their existing 5% reduction target, but achieve it through accounting sleights of hand and fortunate accidents (like Europe’s recession) which make no real difference.

For that reason it’s important the government reveals the implications on the emissions inventory of this accounting change as soon as possible.

*This article was originally published at Climate Spectator

Peter Fray

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