Australia’s poor cop out at Paris climate talks?

Leading up to the Paris climate talks that are now in their final week, the Australian Government once again boasted that they were on track to not only meet but exceed their Kyoto protocol emissions reductions target. In a speech at the Press Club, the Environment Minister, Greg Hunt proclaimed that Australia would overshoot its 2013-2020 target by 28 million tonnes. This seemed like a grand claim, even when you consider that cutting our emissions by 5% below 2000 levels by 2020 is a (very) small target. So, how was this possible?

Here’s how. During the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (2008 to 2012), Australia took on a low target, and did indeed overshoot it – by 128 million tonnes, thanks largely to structural issues such as declining manufacturing and the downturn in coal mining, not to mention a substantial reduction in emissions from deforestation since 1990. And a loophole in the international accounting rules says that if a country exceeds their target in the first period the excess can carry over. So when the second commitment period began (2013-2020) Australia banked 128 million tonnes of emissions reductions without doing anything at all.

Is this cheating?

Some countries think so. Last week, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Britain all announced that they would cancel their carryover credits (otherwise known as the giant “hot air” loophole that has favoured some nations). These European countries will legitimately meet their 2013-2020 targets with emissions reductions made between 2013 and 2020. And they wanted to cancel their surplus credits to send a strong and positive signal of support for an ambitious global climate agreement in Paris.

Australia, on the other hand, is relying desperately on these loophole credits. If Australia were to follow suit we would actually be on track to undershoot our (very small) target by a whopping 100 million tonnes. And the likelihood of meeting these commitments would be put under even more strain without this “hot air” loophole considering that industrial and power sector emissions are rising according to Pitt & Sherry and Reputex, respectively. Yet Greg Hunt called focusing on increasing emissions as odd, strange and desperate.

Sadly, Australia’s enthusiasm for dodgy accounting rules doesn’t end there. While other countries have been pushing for a 1.5 degree celsius global warming goal because they want to see ambitious action to tackle climate change, Australia has been using it as a negotiating chip. The Australian Government agreed to support the stronger goal on the condition that favourable accounting rules are kept – particularly regarding emissions from land use emissions, such as deforestation.

So Australia struck a deal to continue to include deforestation emissions – which were quite high in Australia in the 1990s and early 2000s. Had Australian negotiators not prevailed in Paris over the weekend then, according to researchers from the University of Melbourne, the country would likely have found it tough going to meet the modest goal of cutting 2000 level emissions by 5% by 2020. And excluding land use changes, the increase could be as high as 11%.

Australia should show the same honesty and transparency in its carbon accounting that it expects from other nations. Instead it looks like a poor cop out by Australia at the Conference of the Parties (COP) climate talks in Paris.

Image 1: Greg Hunt at the Paris climate talks. (c) New Matilda.

Image 2: Flickr user harlz_, Yabbra State Forest, Northern NSW