In a recent speech to the Foreign Correspondents Association, Environment Minister Senator Robert Hill spoke extensively of Australia’s
"constructive" role in international efforts to combat global warming.
Yet at the latest round of international negotiations in Bonn, a far different picture was painted. Analysis released by a global coalition of environmental
organisations including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF identified
Australia as one of the main culprits in a coalition of countries working to undermine the environmental integrity of the Kyoto Protocol.
When governments agreed on the Kyoto Protocol in December 1997, a number of the integral operating rules was left to further negotiation. In particular, the rules for the so-called "flexibility mechanisms" – emissions trading, the
clean development mechanism and joint implementation, as well as "sinks", remained to be defined. These definitions have been occupying negotiators for the past 30 months.
The flexibility mechanisms were intended to provide just that – flexibility. But increasingly, the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand have sought to widen the definitions, turning the mechanisms into loopholes to avoid
undertaking genuine domestic emission reduction programs.
Sinks are a primary example. Under the Kyoto Protocol, every tonne of carbon absorbed from the atmosphere via forestry and agricultural activities (know as carbon
"sinks") permits a country to emit an additional tonne of carbon from burning fossil fuels. The effect is that encouraging forestry and agricultural activities will not guarantee reductions in emissions but instead permit major
In addition, the "carbon credits" stored in sinks are far from permanent. Bushfire, pest invasion, and forest loss from climate change could all result in the stored carbon being released back into the atmosphere. At the end of the
day, this means increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and increased rates of global warming.
Australia is arguing a position that will maximise the use of sinks, and is also favouring rules that will provide incentives to chop down old-growth forests and replace them with new plantations from which carbon credits can be claimed.
The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is intended to allow industrialised nations to set up projects in the developing world to avoid greenhouse gases and
assist the recipients with sustainable development. Industrialised nations can claim credit for the amount of emissions avoided. However, instead of promoting clean energy projects, industrialised nations are seeking to hijack the CDM to promote
environmentally damaging projects such as polluting coal-fired power plants and unsafe nuclear power.
Australia is at the forefront here, aggressively promoting the concept of "clean coal" under the CDM. Because Australian coal contains fewer impurities than coal extracted in China for example, and because of differences in
technology, Australia argues its coal is "clean" and results in less air pollution. This, of course, ignores the reality that it is still a major fossil fuel and is responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions.
Similarly, Australia is not opposing the inclusion of nuclear power under the CDM, and is seen as tacitly giving consent. The consequence of this will be the proliferation of the nuclear industry, primarily in developing countries. This could
have the unfortunate consequence of strengthening Pangea’s argument for Australia to become the nuclear waste dump of the world.
Finally, there is the issue of emissions trading. Under the Kyoto Protocol, Russia agreed to limit its emissions to the same as its 1990 levels. However, since Russia’s actual emissions plunged with the economic collapse of the early 1990s,
the allowance created a significant surplus in pollution "rights" (known as "hot air") that might be sold to the highest bidder.
Australia is supporting uncontrolled emission trading whereby countries could buy their way out of their Kyoto commitments using "hot air" from Russia, rather than doing anything to reduce emissions at home.
It is easy to see why Australia is so desperately pursuing these loopholes. Domestic emissions have already grown to at least 118% of 1990 levels, well above our Kyoto target of 108%, and projections indicate further increases. The loopholes
will provide the means for Australia to meet its Kyoto target on paper while continuing on a predominantly business-as-usual approach to emissions growth.
The consequence is that while such an outcome makes for good speeches and rhetoric, it does very little for environmental outcomes. Far from being an international leader playing a "constructive" role, Australia’s stance in the
Kyoto Protocol negotiations is more likely to produce a reputation as an international pariah. Both domestically and internationally, it is time Australia lifted its game and tackled spiralling fossil fuel emissions rather than seeking to exploit
loopholes so that fossil fuel emissions can continue to increase.