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BRIEFING NOTE

Climate Change Negotiations
Looking Towards Bonn in Mid-2001

 

1. Background - From Rio to The Hague to Bonn

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.

This meant 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.

See the UNFCCC website: www.unfccc.int/.

This was 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.

In late 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.

There are 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.

A Greenhouse Timeline is available on the Environmental Protection Agency website.

Before looking in closer detail at Australia's position in these climate change negotiations, the scientific rationale for such negotiations is explored.

2. The scientific evidence on global warming and its impacts

The need 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 begin 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.

The 'enhanced' 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.

The Kyoto Protocol identifies six greenhouse gases emitted by human activity of which the four main ones are:

  • carbon 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.
  • methane (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.
  • nitrous 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 120 years.
  • perfluorocarbons (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.

In 1996 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%.

Global warming 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.

Based on 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.

Overall, 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
  • there will be changes in the intensity of droughts and floods
  • plant and animal species will struggle to adapt to new climate circumstances and many will be extinguished as a result
  • human health will face new risks from infectious diseases like malaria, dengue and yellow fever
  • environmental refugees will become an increasing phenomenon as rising seas inundate lands and desertification increases in other parts of the world.

In Australia our way of life will be impacted thus:

  • most 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
  • climate will become unpredictable and insurance costs will go up as a result.

Predicted effects are outlined on the National Conservation Council of NSW website.

In addition 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.

There are 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.

One serious 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 this particular announcement, he had already reversed an election promise to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants because of 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!

Bush has 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.

Latest developments in the US response can be followed on the Environmental News Network: http://www.enn.com/.

Even allowing 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.

More detail on the science and impacts of climate change is available on various websites which can be accessed via Climate Change Links.

3. Australia's Position

A Top Greenhouse Gas Emitter

The Australian 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 and Singapore.

In particular 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.

Overall, the simple fact is, that without any significant abatement strategies, Australia's greenhouse emissions grew by 40 percent above 1990 levels by 2000.

Leading 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.

Further, 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.

The semi-government 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.

Overall, the Issues Paper outlined the arguments to support the Australian 'differential' approach to climate change negotiations. The Government has argued that this approach is:

  • equitable
  • realistic and achievable
  • cost-effective
  • environmentally effective.

While environmental groups and others challenged the rationale for this policy position, this was the position taken to Kyoto.

The Place of Developing Nations

Australia 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 long term.

Notwithstanding 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 nations 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 graphically:

  • Australians 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)
  • Australia 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.

The fact 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).

The Kyoto Summit

Australia 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.

Notwithstanding 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.

What happened at The Hague? Where did Australia fit in these negotiations and the consequent breakdown?

The Hague

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.

Some countries, 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".

Australia 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 Society website.

Australia 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.


Plantation 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.

Fred Brenchley, The Bulletin, 6 March 2001 - page 43


Greenpeace noted in a Media Release (13 November 2000) just prior to the meeting in The Hague that last week a Senate Inquiry into global warming found that carbon dioxide emissions in Australia have increased by 17% from 1990 levels - double the 8% increase Australia bullied the world into in Kyoto.

Another sticking point at The Hague was the fact that the EU stuck to the demand that a country should meet 50% of its emission targets from within its own borders. The US disagreed and argued that it should be free to follow cheaper options outside its borders - such as investing in solar powered industries in Africa and other clean technologies in places like Eastern Europe. Other sticking points around the so-called " flexibility mechanisms" also bogged down the negotiations between the EU and the US with the US seeking to trade in pollution emissions. This trade would enable the US and others to buy the right to pollute from other countries whose emission levels are less than their target. The right to trade in emissions means that the rich countries could keep on polluting at existing rates and get by the Kyoto requirements on the back of others!

Recent developments in the EU and US positions can be followed on Reuters World Environmental News Service: http://www.planetark.com/dailynewshome.cfm.

In the end, the US-led group, including Australia, was pushing for policy loopholes to avoid taking decisive action at home. This is not good enough. And, unless this country develops an effective long-term strategy which will ultimately lead to a carbon-free economy, we will continue to be a profligate and self-absorbed nation, lacking in concern for the future of our Earth habitat.

4. Urgent action - leading up to the Bonn meeting in mid-2001

To date, Australia's key strategy in addressing climate change has been to establish the Australian Greenhouse Office (AGO). (See www.greenhouse.gov.au/) A number of programs have been initiated through the AGO and credit must be given for efforts to develop alternative fuel options for heavy transport, domestic energy efficiency strategies and other programs.


Don Burke of Burke's Backyard fame has been engaged
by the Federal Government to be the public face of AGO.


Key among the AGO's programs is the Greenhouse Gas Abatement Program (GGAP). The objective of GGAP is to reduce Australia's net greenhouse gas emissions by supporting activities that lead to significant reductions in emissions or enhance sinks. $400 million has been committed to this program.

While the Federal Government is taking some good initiatives, there are some policies that almost defy logic:

  • at the same time as advocating for and developing "sink enhancement" strategies to soak up greenhouse gases, the Government maintains a hands off position on land clearing, especially in Queensland - this means that land clearance is continuing at an alarming rate, not only contributing to the greenhouse effect but having other disastrous ecological consequences; see the SAO Briefing Note on Vegetation Clearance.
  • the Government has passed legislation to make energy retailers buy more renewable energy and while this looks good it means that energy retailers are more likely to go to the cheapest renewable energy - existing hydro-power and biomass. The consequence of this is that real renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy are likely to lose out to cheaper alternatives. One such eligible cheaper alternative is "wood waste" and "sawmill residue". According to the ACF this means that "woodchips from native forest harvesting operations will be created to feed furnaces and generate renewable energy" - native forests are ecological systems and must not be put in the renewable energy ledger!

Let your energy retailer know that burning native forests is not renewable.
Don't burn Bio-diversity!


Further, more pressure must be brought on industry and on the domestic use of fossil fuel energy. A long-term strategy must be developed and communicated to the Australian people about the desirability of moving away from a carbon-reliant economy. Australia must ratify the Kyoto Protocol and support a strong and credible climate treaty at Bonn.

Most importantly, Australia must not hide behind the US. If the current US position remains and they fail to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, it will be a major setback. However, Australia should not use this to walk away from its obligations. Rather, it should be more determined to address climate change and do all it can at a diplomatic level to make the proposed climate treaty strong and credible.

Australia must do more to play its part as a responsible nation in committing to a global strategy to reduce global warming.

Glossary

Annex 1 Countries which have taken on specific emission abatement commitments under Article 4.2 (a) and (b) of the UNFCCC - they are listed as Annex 1 nations; they include the so-called developed nations and some countries undergoing a transition to a market economy.
Carbon leakage Displacement of carbon dioxide emitting activities from countries with reductions targets to those with less, or no, emission abatement commitments.
GDP Gross Domestic Product is the measure of the aggregate output of a country.
Non-Annex 1 Parties not listed in Annex 1 of the UNFCCC, mainly developing countries.
Sinks Forests and other ecosystems that absorb carbon thereby removing it from the atmosphere and off-setting CO2 emissions.
Source Any process, activity or mechanism which releases a greenhouse gas, an aerosol or a precursor of a greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
Umbrella Group Negotiating group under the UNFCCC process comprising the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Iceland, Russia and the Ukraine.
Alliance of Small Island States A group of 42 countries which are among those most threatened by rising seas and other impacts of climate change.

A Final Word

One forecast by reinsurance group Munich Re
is that global warming could cost the world economy
US$304 billion ($580 billion) a year by 2050 unless urgent efforts
are undertaken to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The biggest losses will be in human health and mortality,
followed closely by ecosystems,
including coral reefs and coastal lagoons.

Fred Brenchley, The Bulletin, 6 March 2001, p.43

Climate change will increase the intensity of droughts,
and plant and animal species will struggle to adapt.

(Photo courtesy of Wayne Lawler, EcoPix)

 

Please go to our eco-justice archive for more information on this issue.


References

Allaby, Michael (1990)
Living in the Greenhouse: A Global Warning (Thorsons)

Australian Conservation Foundation (1997)
ACF Global Warming Information Sheets (1-8)

Australian Conservation Foundation (2001)
Take Action Now for the Climate! - Lobbying Action

Brenchley, F (2001)
Forest Ire in The Bulletin, 6 March 2001 pp.42-43

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (1997)
Australia and Climate Change Negotiations
(Australian Government, Canberra)

Deville, A & Harding, R (1997)
Applying the Precautionary Principle (The Federation Press, Sydney)

Greenpeace 2000
Media Release, 13 November

Houghton, John (1994)
Global Warming: The Complete Briefing
(A Lion Book)

National Council of Churches in Australia (1996)
Turning the Tide - reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stopping climate change (September)

The New Internationalist (1997)
South Pacific: The Last Resort (June)

 

See Climate Change Links - A lot of information is available on these websites, much of which has informed this Briefing Note.

 

Social Action Office
April 2001

 

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