At a South
Pacific Forum in the Cook Islands in 1997, Prime Minister (PM)
John Howard reiterated his Government's refusal to adopt the
greenhouse gas emission recommendations of the UN Framework
Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). While agreeing to be
part of a global response to global warming, the Australian
position differed from other nations on the details of how
this might be achieved. Rather than agree to stabilise emissions
to 1990 levels by the year 2000 as proposed by the UNFCCC at
the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the PM's agenda
was to push for more flexible, differential targets across
nations - a 'differential' policy position. This is based on
the notion that the economic strategies needed to reduce these
emissions should not hurt any one nation more than another,
that there should be a "uniform net welfare loss".
In other words, the economic pain should be equally shared
across the planet by the developed and developing nations.
that, from the beginning of global climate change negotiations,
Australia would not commit to stabilising emissions at a designated
level but, rather, that we will simply limit our rate of increasing
emissions. So, rather than increasing greenhouse gas emissions
by a predicted 40 percent beyond 1990 levels by 2010, Australia
agreed to take steps to limit the predicted growth in emissions.
UNFCCC website: www.unfccc.int/.
the position which Australia took to the first UNFCCC meeting
in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997. Kyoto followed the Earth Summit
in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where the UNFCCC was first agreed to.
This was the first step taken towards a global agreement geared
towards stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere
at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human made)
interference with the climate system. The Kyoto meeting was
to strengthen the Rio initiative and make further progress on
a binding treaty to which all nations would, hopefully, subscribe.
Marked differences emerged among the nations at Kyoto with Australia
sticking to its 'differentiation' policy despite opposition and
anger from other countries especially those at immediate risk
from climate change - the Alliance of Small Island States many
of whom are Australia's Pacific neighbours.
2000 at The Hague, nations again met to implement the Kyoto Protocol.
Agreeing on strategies for reaching agreed emission targets was
a key focus. Negotiations broke down and the meeting ended inconclusively
with much disappointment and anger expressed. At The Hague, Australia
allied itself with a US-led umbrella group which included Canada,
Japan and Russia - some of the top 'emitter' nations in the world.
This US-led alliance and the European Union (EU) disagreed on
key strategies to implement the Kyoto agreements.
plans to resume the negotiations begun at The Hague in Bonn, Germany,
in mid-2001. It is hoped that the Bonn negotiations will settle
major differences and bind the nations of the world to action,
consistent with the ideals of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Timeline is available on the Environmental Protection
in closer detail at Australia's position in these climate change
negotiations, the scientific rationale for such negotiations is
The scientific evidence on global warming and its impacts
for global political action on climate change is predicated on
the view that the world is facing a serious climate change crisis.
Just how serious is this 'crisis'? And, how much can we rely on
scientific evidence to prove that the crisis is real?
to answer these questions it is important to recognise that the
greenhouse effect is a perfectly natural phenomenon. If it were
not for the natural greenhouse effect the earth would be about
33 degrees cooler than it is at present. A natural blanket of
gases in the troposphere (the lower atmosphere about 0-10 kms
above the earth's surface) keeps the earth temperature at levels
needed to sustain the complex web of life on this planet.
greenhouse effect, what is over and above the 'natural', is that
which is accelerating climate change and giving rise to the
crisis. Over time changes in living standards and industrialisation
have contributed to "anthropogenic" (human made) greenhouse
gases. These are in addition to those greenhouse gases made naturally.
This is creating an imbalance because these are being created
faster than they can be absorbed and removed by natural processes
or "sinks" - notably photosynthesis and ocean surfaces.
Protocol identifies six greenhouse gases emitted by human activity
of which the four main ones are:
dioxide (CO2) - emitted by the burning of fossil fuels
for electricity generation and transport; aggravated by forest
clearing and burning of vegetation which is the natural way
in which CO2 is absorbed to maintain the balance needed to
sustain life on earth; when land is cleared we not only lose
the natural absorbers but carbon which is stored in trees and
in the soil is released into the atmosphere; CO2 has an atmospheric
lifetime of between 50 to 200 years.
(CH4) - emitted by cattle and waste, such as the breakdown
of landfill, and coal mining; this is a more powerful greenhouse
gas than carbon dioxide; CH4 is twenty times more powerful
than carbon dioxide and has an atmospheric lifetime of between
12 to 17 years.
oxide (N20) - emitted by the chemical industry in some
areas of production, especially in industrial-style agriculture,
and aggravated by deforestation; this gas is 200 times more
powerful than carbon dioxide and has an atmospheric life of
(PFCs) - these gases are largely confined to the industrial
sector and their volume is increasing alarmingly; they have
an atmospheric lifetime of greater than 1000 years.
the Inter-governmental Panel in Climate Change (IPCC), representing
2,500 scientists, released a major assessment on climate change.
This represented a growing confidence in the scientific community
that the increasing emissions of greenhouse gases through human
activity is contributing to 'enhanced' global warming and that
this will have potentially disastrous impacts on bio-diversity,
coasts, agriculture, water and health. For example, the IPCC assessments
revealed that the concentration of carbon dioxide had increased
by about 30% over the past 200 years (since the Industrial Revolution
took shape) and that methane concentrations had risen by 145%.
and climate change predictions are based on sophisticated computer
models which allow scientists to simulate the broad features of
the global climate system and to distinguish between natural and
human influences on climate patterns. This distinction is critical
in giving credence to scientific findings.
the scenarios modeled by the IPCC, predictions are that, unless
action is taken urgently, the global average temperatures relative
to 1990 will increase by 1 degree - 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100.
The best estimate is a 2 degree Celsius rise. The average rate
of warming then would be greater than at any time in the history
of civilisation. There is clear correlation between changes in
temperatures and changes in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
it is predicted that the rate and level of global climate change
will be greater than in any time in the last 10,000 years.
As a result
of this global warming, the IPCC has also predicted that:
- sea levels
will rise between 15-95 cm above present levels by 2100 - sea
levels will rise as a result of the thermal expansion of oceans
and the melting of glaciers
will be changes in the intensity of droughts and floods
and animal species will struggle to adapt to new climate circumstances
and many will be extinguished as a result
health will face new risks from infectious diseases like malaria,
dengue and yellow fever
refugees will become an increasing phenomenon as rising seas
inundate lands and desertification increases in other parts
of the world.
our way of life will be impacted thus:
areas will get hotter with an increase in evaporation levels
- this will result in reduced output from primary industries
- the Great
Barrier Reef will be at risk from changes to ocean temperatures
- the snow
fields will melt in Australia's high country
will become unpredictable and insurance costs will go up as
effects are outlined on the National
Conservation Council of NSW website.
to these predictions, recent studies have focused on the risks
posed by the warming of frozen Arctic lands. If the areas under
permafrost (a solid structure of frozen soil) thaw, prehistoric
vegetation will be exposed releasing up to 450 billion tonnes
of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere - Siberia is
already thawing rapidly.
many vested interests who do not wish to hear this message -
for example, the trillion dollar oil, coal, auto and petrochemical
industries around the world. A significant coalition of these
interests in the US is the Global Climate Coalition (GCC).
This body has invested millions in a propaganda offensive to
discredit the IPCC and to undermine climate change negotiations
at a government level in the US. It would be naíve to underestimate the power
of such groups in manufacturing dissent and skepticism. Notwithstanding
this, there are transnational companies who have heeded the IPCC's
message and who have dissociated themselves from groups like the
GCC. In 2000, Texaco withdrew from the GCC, following the lead
given by others such as BP/Amoco and Shell. While this has occurred
it would be naíve to suggest that the opponents of the
Kyoto Protocol are in retreat. Opposition can still be expected.
hurdle to a meaningful response to the Kyoto Protocol is the
response of the Bush Administration in the US. President Bush
announced on 29 March 2001 that the US will be withdrawing
from the Kyoto Protocol. This is a major blow to tackling global
warming. The US has cited the failure of the protocol to bind
'developing' nations to specific targets as one of the main
reasons for this policy decision (see section 3 of this Briefing
Note under the heading "The Place of Developing Nations").
Without the US the effect of the treaty would be severely limited
as the US is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. The President's
rationale for this policy change lacks credibility. Prior to
particular announcement, he had already reversed an election
promise to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants because
an energy crisis in the US and the risk this posed to the nation's
economy. This decision would put the US way behind in reducing
greenhouse emissions anyway. Certainly the US has (an) energy
problem(s), but it is folly to address one problem by creating
another, irreversible, problem. This is bad policy!
also indicated that he will undo other environment protection
laws that impinge on global warming such as limiting mercury emissions
from power plants and opening up roads into forests for logging
and oil exploration. The Bush Administration appears to be moving
rapidly into an isolationist position on environmental matters.
developments in the US response can be followed on the Environmental
News Network: http://www.enn.com/.
for some skepticism about climate change, there is sufficient
reason for concern to take immediate precautions. The IPCC predictions
are far too serious to simply wait around until the scientific
evidence is beyond refuting or dissenting voices are quelled.
(Given the vested interests, it is unlikely that the most rigorous
evidence will satisfy the opponents of the Kyoto Protocol anyway.)
At the very least, the precautionary principle should
be invoked here. This provides for situations wherein a lack of
full scientific certainty should not be used to postpone actions
to prevent environmental degradation.
detail on the science and impacts of climate change is available
on various websites which can be accessed via Climate
Top Greenhouse Gas Emitter
economy and general lifestyle rely very much on the generation
of greenhouse gas emissions. Through our transport system, waste,
land clearance, agriculture and domestic consumption of energy
we emit 32 tonnes of total greenhouse gases per person annually.
On a per capita basis this makes us one of the highest contributors
to greenhouse emissions in the world. We are the sixth highest
emitter, behind Canada, the US, Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates
we rely on burning fuels for the electrical energy we need in
industry, business and in homes. Coal and, to a lesser extent,
gas are the main fuels we burn to generate the energy we need.
Every unit of electrical energy we use requires 3-4 units of coal
energy or 2 units of gas energy to be burned in a power station.
We burn oil in our heavy reliance on automobile and air travel.
Of course Australia does not use nuclear energy and this is one
reason for our high rate of greenhouse gas emissions. It is certainly
not desirable to move towards nuclear energy to solve our greenhouse
problems, even though countries such as Japan and OECD countries
use nuclear energy as an alternative to burning fossil fuels.
the simple fact is, that without any significant abatement
Australia's greenhouse emissions grew by 40 percent above 1990
levels by 2000.
up to the Kyoto Summit
In the lead-up
to the Kyoto Summit in 1997, the Howard Government observed that
the adoption of UNFCCC benchmarks for stabilising greenhouse gas
emissions would have a radical effect on national industries and
lifestyles. Among other concerns, the Government pointed to job
losses in key industries as a very undesirable outcome.
A 1997 Government
Issues Paper entitled "Australia and Climate Change Negotiations"
(prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in collaboration
with other Commonwealth Departments, using data and information
from semi-government agencies) estimated that if proposed development
projects are impeded by the cost pressures of implementing greenhouse
benchmarks then a possible 90,000 jobs could be lost to Australia
over a five year period. No Government leader presiding over existing
high levels of unemployment would wish to adopt climate change
strategies which would deepen the unemployment problem or, as
this paper suggested impede job creation. It should be pointed
out that this calculation of job losses was not based on an economic
study but, rather, was the result of a questionnaire which was
sent out to various government agencies across the country. In
reality, the job loss figures are questionable as they were more
on hoped for "wish lists" than actual jobs.
the paper estimated that the immediate cost of stabilising greenhouse
emissions at the 1990 level would be between 0.9 and 1.5 percent
of GDP. When trade and investment effects are factored in this
would rise to 2.5 percent by 2010. Related to this, it is also
claimed that $12 billion worth of planned and existing investments
in emission-intensive projects would be forced offshore if stabilising
targets were to be imposed on industry.
organisation that conducted the research was roundly criticised
for its perceived bias in estimating the GDP figures. This was
over-sighted by a Steering Committee in which fossil fuel interests
dominated and conservation groups struggled to have a voice.
It was also
estimated that some regions within Australia will be more adversely
affected than others by binding targets.
the Issues Paper outlined the arguments to support the Australian
'differential' approach to climate change negotiations. The Government
has argued that this approach is:
groups and others challenged the rationale for this policy position,
this was the position taken to Kyoto.
of Developing Nations
and other allies like the US are also concerned that developing
nations will not be subject to the same pressures as the developed
nations (Annex 1 nations for the purposes of the UNFCCC) to reduce
greenhouse emissions (witness George W Bush's rationale for abandoning
the Kyoto Protocol). Without the co-operation of the non-Annex
1 or developing nations any greenhouse strategies would be ineffective
as these nations are predicted to account for more than half the
world's emissions by 2010. Securing the co-operation of significant
developing countries, like China and India who are struggling
to compete in the global economy, will be an ongoing challenge
in making the protocol's objectives real and effective in the
this, developing nation targets were never meant to be a central
part of the Kyoto Protocol. The foundation of this agreement
was based on the acceptance by the world's biggest polluting
that they would meet targets as a demonstration of "taking
the first step". The majority of the world's nations (the
developing countries) pushed for this because 80% of the current
problem has been caused by industrialised nations reaching high
living standards by burning fossil fuels (Climate Action
Network Australia). The following figures illustrate this
produce 16 tonnes of CO2 pollution per person - compared to
each Chinese person who produces 3 tonnes and each Indian who
produces 1 tonne (UNFCCC 2000)
produces a larger total amount of CO2 than does Indonesia,
even though we have a population of 20 million compared to
Indonesia's population of 200 million. Australia produced 306
million tonnes of CO2 from fuel combustion in 1997 and Indonesia
produced 257 million tonnes (UNFCCC 2000).
In the end
it must be acknowledged that it is the 'developed' nations who
are still the greatest polluters and that it is the 'western'
model of development and its reliance on fossil fuel energy sources
that is the cause of global warming. Developing countries have
been quick to seize upon this and to argue that they should not
bear an excessive burden in dealing with pollution created mostly
by the developed world. This will be an ongoing issue for climate
change negotiations. While they are not bound to specific reductions
like the Annex 1 nations, this does not mean that developing nations
will not adopt strategies to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Developing
nations are already taking steps, including the adoption of 'clean'
technologies. For example, the Worldwatch Institute (2000) has
recorded that China's emissions actually fell 3.7% in the period
1997 to 1998. In comparison, Australia's emissions increased in
this same period.
that developing nations are not subject to binding greenhouse
targets is not a reason for withholding support for the Kyoto
Protocol. As the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) has
said, blaming the world's poor nations as the reason for trashing
the Kyoto Protocol is unfair and like diners in a five star restaurant
demanding that the people in the soup kitchen pay the bill (cited
in an ACF email).
succeeded in securing approval for its position at Kyoto and got
to increase emissions while other nations were required to decrease
their emissions. Many nations, notably the Alliance of Small Island
States, were not happy with this outcome. Australia has also been
criticised by Greenpeace for 'bullying' the world into accepting
its greenhouse policy.
this, the Australian position was accepted at Kyoto and on this
basis the Australian Government has continued to be a part of
the global negotiations on climate change. Future global meetings
were to be held to add the finishing touches to the 'rules' for
implementing the Kyoto Protocol. A meeting in Buenos Aires held
in 1998 failed to finalise this but the deadline for reaching
a final resolution was set for the end of 2000. Unfortunately,
at the meeting held to achieve this at The Hague in November 2000,
negotiations broke down and no final resolution of the global
rules on climate change was reached. This was a major setback
for the Kyoto agreement which had set targets to be agreed upon
and achieved by 2010. Demonstrable progress was expected by 2005.
at The Hague? Where did Australia fit in these negotiations and
the consequent breakdown?
One of the
debatable issues at The Hague centred on the place of 'carbon
sinks' and other so-called "flexibility mechanisms"
to meet emission targets. The natural world soaks up and stores
carbon and at Kyoto it was accepted that this could be factored
into emission calculations. So, because trees soak up carbon
dioxide and store carbon, countries sought to claim carbon credits
by virtue of existing forests and by planting more forests.
Soil is also
a carbon sink - it is expected that this will feature as a discussion
point in Bonn.
notably the US-led Umbrella Group of which Australia was part,
place great emphasis on carbon sinks as a strategy for meeting
emission targets. Others, especially the EU, rejected this
emphasis and argued that this should be only a small part of
meeting targets. The EU and others expected greater controls
on industry and domestic policies to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions. The US-led group was seen as taking an easy way
out and simply addressing the problem by "watching the trees grow".
has even canvassed "sneaking" vegetation thickening
in the back door and having this included in target calculations
- we wait to see how far this is pursued. See the Wilderness
was heavily criticised by environmental groups for wanting to
rely on avoidance mechanisms like forests and plantation off-sets
while, at the same time, continuing to uphold a carbon-based economy.
forests and their sink capacity to absorb greenhouse gases are
only part - perhaps 15% to 20% - of the answer to greenhouse gases.
Engineering solutions and renewable energy sources such as wind
power are among the big answers.