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Paris? We’ll always have Kyoto

25 February 2019

Australia’s climate “canter” relies on a sleight of hand that dates back to the 1997 climate talks

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Carrying on carrying over: Kyoto-era prime minister John Howard with PM Scott Morrison at the opening of the UNSW Howard Library at Old Parliament House in December. Alex Ellinghausen/Fairfax Syndication

Carrying on carrying over: Kyoto-era prime minister John Howard with PM Scott Morrison at the opening of the UNSW Howard Library at Old Parliament House in December. Alex Ellinghausen/Fairfax Syndication


When the Kyoto Protocol on climate change was being negotiated in Japan in December 1997, I was living in Tokyo. It was probably the most important international summit Japan had hosted, and the local media was giving it saturation coverage, right down to Australia’s discordant contributions.

Five years earlier, the signing of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change had recognised the growing scientific consensus that anthropogenic global warming was occurring, that it would pose an increasing threat, and that coordinated action was needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The aim of the Kyoto meeting was to move from a shared aims to a means of achieving it, to agree on binding commitments to reduce emissions.

The delegates gathered in Kyoto acknowledged that different countries were at different stages of economic development. Because Western countries had a 200-year head start in the industrialisation stakes, they would need to take the lead in reducing emissions, with developing countries, including China and India, joining at a future date.

The most committed countries, led by American vice-president Al Gore, were intent on reaching an inclusive agreement. Most European countries were keen on strong action, too, as was Canada under Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien, and the Japanese were determined that the meeting would be a success. Eventually this group succeeded in clinching a deal, with thirty-seven countries and the European Union signing on to become “Annex I” countries and commence the emissions reduction process.

Among the major players, the near-universal wish for a binding, unanimously agreed protocol meant that when a minor player like Australia played the recalcitrant it would be indulged. Below the main headlines in the Japanese press coverage of the meeting were stories of Australia’s threats and dissents, and the major countries’ efforts to accommodate them.

Global warming had been on the Australian political agenda since Bob Hawke’s 1990 announcement that his government wanted to cut greenhouse emissions by 20 per cent within fifteen years. While momentum faltered under Hawke’s successor, Paul Keating, the opposition Liberals under John Hewson began taking a stronger stand. But in the run-up to the Kyoto summit, the Howard government — though conscious that Australia was becoming increasingly isolated internationally — was much more preoccupied with maintaining economic growth. Indeed, cabinet papers released this year show that the government considered dropping out of the international talks altogether.

In the end, Australia’s environment minister, Robert Hill, succeeded in securing what the Howard government saw as an advantageous deal at Kyoto. His first achievement was to secure a very generous target for emissions reduction. In the initial agreement, covering the trajectory of emissions from 1990 (the first year for which emissions data was seen as sufficiently accurate) until the period 2008–12, the average commitment among signatory countries was a 5 per cent reduction. Some countries — Germany, for instance, with a 21 per cent reduction, and Britain with 12.5 per cent — went considerably further, but Australia’s special pleading allowed its emissions to rise by 8 per cent over the period.

Then, in the days before the signing, Hill sprang a new demand. Unless LULUCF — land use, land-use change, and forestry — was included in the calculations, Australia would refuse to sign. This came to be known as the “Australia clause,” and some countries were very angry at its inclusion. The European Union’s environmental representative, Peter Jorgensen, said that the Australian stance was “wrong and immoral”; later, two German analysts would bracket Russia, Australia and the members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, as the principal obstacles to progress in the negotiations.

A case does exist for including LULUCF in the treaty. Although several countries argued that its measurement was difficult, it does have an impact on total greenhouse emissions. But it is only a very small part of the total mix in most developed countries (unlike in developing countries like Indonesia and Brazil, where large-scale land clearing adds substantially to carbon dioxide emissions). Indeed, the value of LULUCF is negative in most developed countries — more carbon dioxide is absorbed by forestry activities than is added by land clearing.

The key reason for Hill’s demand was that Australia’s rate of land-clearing had been abnormally high in the baseline year of 1990 — that level has never again been approached — which would make targets much easier to achieve. Subsequent figures show how true that was. In 1990, Australia recorded a total of 583 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions. By 2010, that figure was down to 559, a reduction of 4 per cent, but the reduction was entirely due to changes in LULUCF. In fact, the fall in LULUCF emissions — from 163 tonnes in 1990 to just twenty-two in 2010 — was the sole reason Australia reached its already generous Kyoto target. If LULUCF had been excluded, Australia’s emissions would have gone from 420 to 537, an increase of 28 per cent.

After the summit, Howard described Australia’s outcome as an “absolutely stunning diplomatic success.” He welcomed the fact that Australia was able to “make a massive contribution to the world environmental effort to cut greenhouse gases” in a way that would protect Australian jobs.  Nevertheless in 2002 Howard decided not to ratify Kyoto, although he said Australia would still meet its target. In this, he was following president George W. Bush, who had taken the United States out the previous year.

By 2007, with political momentum for action on global warming intensifying, both major parties went to the election promising an emissions-trading scheme. After the election, Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd won considerable kudos for committing to Kyoto. But this was an essentially symbolic action: thanks to the deal Hill had struck, Australia didn’t have to do anything at all to meet its Kyoto obligations.

Eventually, a second Kyoto target period was agreed on, although fewer countries signed on this time. Russia, the United States and Canada all dropped out, as did (post-Fukushima) Japan. Australia committed to a 5 per cent decrease between 2000 and 2020, and is on track to do this, but changes in LULUCF are again the key. In 2000, Australia’s total emissions were 552 and in 2020 they are likely to be 543, down slightly. But its LULUCF emissions are projected to decline from +67 to –10. Once again, Australia would have missed its target without LULUCF.

Such niceties have not inhibited Australian ministers’ capacity for self-congratulation. “We are one of the few countries in the world to have met and beaten our first round of Kyoto targets and to be on track to meet and beat our second round of Kyoto targets,” environment minister Greg Hunt proclaimed. Australia is different from “a lot of other countries,” said prime minister Tony Abbott in July 2015, because “when we make commitments to reduce emissions we keep them.”

Australia had another reason to remain in the second Kyoto round. The original protocol had included an incentive to promote quick action: if countries exceeded their targets, they received carry-over credits to the next round. In the event, a majority of countries met and exceeded their targets, and indeed Annex I countries as a whole reduced their emissions by 24 per cent over the target period to 2010 (rather undercutting Hunt and Abbott’s sense of superiority). On the other hand, total global emissions rose 45 per cent over this period, showing the urgency of involving the rest of the world in the process.


After Kyoto, a series of international summits — including, most dispiritingly, Copenhagen in 2009 — made very limited progress towards more effective action. Then, in December 2015, came the breakthrough gathering in Paris. The key to the success of the Paris talks was the concept of NDCs (nationally determined contributions), under which each country decided on its own target. Fully 186 countries submitted NDCs, and all of them adopted the goal of keeping the earth’s warming to less than 2 per cent, and if possible to less than 1.5 per cent.

Australia’s NDC target was a reduction of 26–28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030. (The federal government’s Climate Change Authority had advocated between 45 and 65 per cent.) Many countries were criticised for setting themselves too modest a target. Indeed, some environmental critics have said that even if all participating countries met their targets, the fall in emissions would not be sufficient to keep global warming below 2 degrees. On the other hand, never before had so many countries recognised the urgency of the issue and committed themselves to action.

Australia embraced Paris. Foreign minister Julie Bishop said she was proud to have been part of such a momentous meeting; the government said its “ambitious” target would be “achieved through a credible policy suite that is already reducing emissions, encouraging technological innovation and expanding our clean energy sector.” While LULUCF reductions will still be helpful given the 2005 base year, this time they won’t be sufficient to hit the target.

Moreover, as has been well documented, Australia’s emissions have increased each year since the Abbott government abolished the carbon tax. On the face of it, Australia is heading in the wrong direction to meet its Paris commitments. But during the last few months a new escape clause has increasingly been invoked.

It started in November, when prime minister Scott Morrison stated — without elaboration and in seeming contradiction of the evidence — that Australia would meet its Paris commitments “in a canter.” To the extent that there is any substance behind this claim, it seems to rely on two factors.

The first is the likelihood that emissions from electricity will be lower than projected. The very high price of electricity during the term of the Coalition government has made price-conscious consumers cut back on consumption and encouraged the spread of rooftop solar systems.

The second factor, bigger but more problematic, is that the government believes that it is entitled to claim carry-over credits for meeting its Kyoto targets. According to a report in the Australian just before Christmas, Scott Morrison claimed that carried-over credits will be used to help meet the 2030 target. The paper said that “the use of carry-over credits was not ruled out at the recent climate talks in Katowice, Poland.” Also in December the Department of the Environment and Energy’s Australia’s Emissions Projections 2018 report stated baldly that overachieving Kyoto targets reduces Australia’s emissions reduction task for Paris from 695 million tonnes to 328 million tonnes.

It appears that the Morrison government is going to use these credits to more than halve the work needed to meet Australia’s Paris commitment. Before late 2018, no government minister or official had ever raised the possibility of claiming these credits. The official report, Australia’s Emissions Projections 2016, for example, made no reference to them at all.

Nor is it clear that any other country accepts that these credits can be used. The sixteen pages and twenty-nine articles of the Paris Agreement make no reference to carry-over credits — and it would be surprising if it did, given that four-fifths of the participating countries were not Annex I countries in Kyoto, and have no incentive to agree to anything other than a real reduction in carbon emissions.

Similarly, the OECD’s January 2019 Environmental Performance Review, which noted that Australia needed to intensify efforts to reach its Paris Agreement goal, made no mention of carry-over credits. No international document that I’ve been able to locate endorses the idea that they are an acceptable means of claiming emission reductions.

In Kyoto I and II Australia was able to use the special conditions it wrung out of other countries to claim it was fulfilling its international obligations. Then Australia went backwards on all major sources of emissions except LULUCF. Now, in the spirit of Robert Hill, the government has invented the idea of using carry-over credits to meet its Paris target. This is almost certain to be unacceptable internationally, but perhaps the obfuscation will hide from the electorate the government’s failure to move in any meaningful way towards the Paris targets it signed on to. •

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Healthy sceptic: detail from an anonymous portrait of Adam Smith, painted around 1795, known as the Muir portrait. Scottish National Portrait Gallery

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