FactCheck: has Australia met its climate goals, while other nations make 'airy-fairy promises'?

Anita Talberg, University of Melbourne and Malte Meinshausen, University of Melbourne

The difference between Australia and a lot of other countries … is when we make commitments to reduce emissions we keep them. Other countries make all these airy fairy promises, that in the end never come to … anything. – Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, July 13, 2015.

There are two parts to the Prime Minister’s statement: in the first, he affirms that to date Australia has been true to its emissions reduction commitments; in the second, he suggests that other countries have not.

Has Australia kept its emissions reduction commitments?

International negotiations on climate change have been underway since the 1990s. The first set of emissions-reduction commitments were made for the 2008-12 period under an agreement known as the Kyoto Protocol. Developed countries agreed to restrict their greenhouse gas emissions by predetermined amounts over the period.

An entire set of rules, procedures and methodologies was established to account for and monitor greenhouse gas emissions over that period. And of course, each country set its own target and negotiated special conditions along with it.

Under the 2008-12 agreement, Australia’s target was to keep the increase in its emissions to within 8% of 1990 levels. Australia effectively met that target.

The subsequent commitment period is from 2013 to 2020. Over this period, Australia initially committed to reducing its emissions by 5% unconditionally and potentially by as much as 15% or 25% below 2000 levels by 2020. The higher targets were contingent on there being commensurate action from other countries (and the Climate Change Authority found that these conditions have, in fact, been met).

Australia reaffirmed the full range of targets as recently as the climate change negotiations in Doha in 2012. However, in subsequent climate change conferences, Australia has talked of its 5% target but not mentioned the 15% or 25% targets until pressed to do so (see webcast here). The website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade mentions only the 5% target and the government has stated that:

The Government is committed to reducing Australia’s emissions by 5% below 2000 levels by 2020… Any additional targets will be reviewed in 2015 in the lead up to the Paris conference, as has been our longstanding position.

Have other countries kept their emissions reduction commitments?

There was a fair range in commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. The European Union, as a bloc, committed to reducing emissions by 8% on 1990 levels over the 2008-12 period; New Zealand pledged a 0% increase; and Australia, as mentioned, committed to 108% of 1990 levels.

Importantly, only developed countries made commitments because these countries bear a responsibility to act first and foremost. However, over the past couple of years, developing countries have begun to make pledges to limit future greenhouse gas emissions (by 2020, 2025 or 2030).

Under the accounting rules of the Kyoto Protocol, there are a few ways that countries can meet their targets. The main one is to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. However, if a country cannot reduce emissions sufficiently in its national territory, it can buy emissions reduction credits from another country, or it can pay for emissions reductions in another country. These options are known as flexibility mechanisms.

Although the Kyoto Protocol commitment period ended in 2012, the accounting rules state that countries can continue buying and selling credits into 2015. This extended period is known as the “true-up” period. Because the true-up period is ongoing, there is still some wiggle room for countries to buy extra credits and thus keep their promises.

Looking to the numbers

Shown in the chart below, we have calculated from official figures submitted to United Nations body that manages the Kyoto Protocol how countries are tracking against their Kyoto targets. As the charts below show, a number of countries and blocs have done even better than they originally promised, including the European Union (which reduced its emissions 18% below its Kyoto target), Australia and New Zealand.

The chart below shows by how much countries have come in above or below their targets. For example, Australia is shown as -4% because it came in 4% below the target it agreed to meet.


For those countries that didn’t reach their emissions reduction target, this second chart shows how they could meet their targets through the use of international emissions credits already purchased.


From looking at both of these charts, one country stands out: Japan.

Japan committed to a 6% reduction on its 1990 level of emissions. It is 1% above its stated target. Japan’s excess of emissions is in part due to the government’s response to the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011. Following the meltdown, the government reduced its reliance on nuclear power and was forced to resort to additional fossil fuel based energy.

However, Japan has continually affirmed that it will meet its Kyoto target (see here and here). It can still do so by purchasing offset credits as part of the flexibility mechanisms.

What about the US and Canada?

Both the United States and Canada are missing from the table. The proposed US target was a 7% reduction. However, the US never ratified the Kyoto Protocol and therefore the proposal is not considered a “promise”.

Canada pledged a 6% reduction on its 1990 levels. Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2011 citing the absence of the US and China (the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters) as the reason.

Given the lack of Kyoto accounting data, an exact evaluation of Canada’s emissions cannot be made against its stated targets. However, the United Nations provides a graph here, that suggests that Canada is unlikely to have met its target (even with the use of flexibility mechanisms).


The Prime Minister is correct on the implication in the first part of his statement: that Australia has met its previous target under the Kyoto Protocol. However, this was not an emissions reduction commitment; it was a commitment to limit its emissions increase. Australia also made a 2020 emissions reduction promise to strengthen its target to -15% or -25%, but this “never came to anything”.

The Prime Minister is incorrect on the implication in the second part of his statement: that most other countries have not met their targets. One country (Canada) out of 39 developed countries made a promise that came to nothing; and one other country (Japan) did not reduce its own emissions by as much as it said it would (however, Japan can still fulfil its promise by buying emission credits from elsewhere).


The article is correct. It is true that with the major exception of Japan, countries that ratified the Kyoto treaty have met their commitments – including Australia. However, to some degree this was not really due to their efforts, with both Russia and other Eastern European countries benefiting from economic collapse and Europe to some degree benefiting from the 2008-9 recession. Canada did not meet its target and broke its promise by pulling out of Kyoto. It seems the United States met its original proposal (partly due to recession) without ever ratifying Kyoto.

At this stage, developing countries have made emissions proposals for 2020 only, and so it is too early to tell what will happen. China appears to be on track so far, though. Britain and some other countries have made longer-term pledges. But they can’t be assessed yet either, of course.

So, the majority of pledging countries have met their targets, though sometimes by accident. Technically, all those who remained in Kyoto apart from Japan met the targets. – David Stern

Have you ever seen a “fact” that doesn’t look quite right? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article.

You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

The Conversation

Anita Talberg is PhD student in the Australian German Climate and Energy College at University of Melbourne.
Malte Meinshausen is A/Prof., School of Earth Sciences at University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Losing bees will sting more than just our taste for honey

Marianne Peso

Changing wildlife: this article is part of a series looking at how key species such as bees, insects and fish respond to environmental change, and what this means for the rest of the planet.

We may lose a lot more than honey if bees are unable to cope with the changing climate and increasing demand for agricultural land.

Your morning coffee might be a thing of the past if bees disappear, and if coffee isn’t your thing, you undoubtedly eat many of the fruit and vegetables (and chocolate) that rely on bee pollination for survival.

In fact, the world’s 25,000 bee species are responsible for pollinating a third of the food humans eat. If we lose bees, then we risk the food security of ourselves, and all the other animals that depend on bee-pollinated crops for survival.

While European (managed) honey bees steal the limelight, other wild (non-honey) bees are just as important for pollinating crops and will also be impacted by climate change. Data from all over the globe suggest that both groups are in decline, but since we do not have a global integrated and complete monitoring system of bee populations, these data do not describe the full extent of the problem.

So how well equipped are bees to survive a warming climate, and is there anything we can do to help?

Bees and plants: it’s a long-term relationship

Bees and flowering plants share a long evolutionary relationship and depend on each other for survival. Plants provide bees with food and habitat, while the bees feeding on pollen and nectar provide the plants with pollination.

To orchestrate this beautiful exchange, plants and bees rely on environmental cues (such as temperature) to coordinate their seasonal activity. However, climate change can disrupt these relationships so that bee activity periods will no longer time with flowering periods. This will cause the bees to lose a food source and plants that fail to fruit, potentially leading to extinctions of both.

The beautiful exchange between bees and plants

Some plant-bee relationships are highly specialised. These species have evolved together so closely that a plant can depend on a single bee species in order to reproduce and vice versa.

Bees in specialist plant-bee relationships (such as this one) are most susceptible to climate induced extinction, as the loss of one will inevitably lead to the loss of the other.

More generalist bee species, that can collect food from more than one plant species, may fare better than their specialist counterparts. As the climate changes, animals and plants evolve new genetic traits to adapt to the new environment.

However, when the environment changes at a faster pace than evolution can produce new traits, species that already have the physiological and behavioural abilities within its genetic code to cope with the changes will have an advantage.

A bee species that can already access more than one food source (such as the honey bee) can quickly adapt to changing plant communities and survive when other specialist species cannot.

‘Beehaving’ differently in the heat

Bee species that can alter their behaviour to cope with high temperatures (for example by changing their activity periods to avoid the hottest part of the day) will tolerate climate stress. But these adaptive capabilities have their limits.

Increasing heat waves can directly kill bees by overheating them and/or melting wax-based nesting structures. Drought can also kill bees indirectly, by causing dehydration or starvation through the death of food plants.

Alternatively, it is possible that bees will change their range in response to changing climactic zones. As one area gets too hot, the bees can move to more tolerable climatic conditions.

However, a study on bumble bees conducted in North America and Europe using data spanning the last century indicate that bumble bees do not move in a way that “tracks” warming. Rather, they stay in the same place despite the changing climate.

A socially flexible sweat bee can switch behaviour depending on the environmental conditions
Patty O’Hearn Kickham/flickr, CC BY-ND

While most of us think bees live in colonies, most of the world’s bees are actually solitary. In solitary species, female bees generally live alone in nests they’ve built, in which they raise their offspring.

Most bee species are also fixed in their social structures, with some species living alone while others have varying degrees of social behaviour. However, a few native bee can change their social structure depending on the environment, so bees that are solitary in one set of environmental conditions are social under another. These socially flexible species may have surprising responses to climate change.

As the weather warms and growing seasons lengthen, socially flexible bees (such as some carpenter and sweat bees) may, eventually, switch permanently from solitary behaviour to social behaviour. However this may also decrease their ability to adapt.

Leaving wildflower borders at the edge of fields can provide habitat for bees
ukgardenphotos/flickr, CC BY-ND

Bee habitats are disappearing

While changing the climate, humans have also made dramatic changes to Earth’s landscapes. Increasing human population and our consequent demands for space to live and grow food has meant that more of the bees’ habitat has been changed into urban and intensive agricultural areas.

This has resulted in loss of habitat and food sources for the bees (as well as exposure to potentially harmful pesticides). Large areas of monoculture crops fragment vital bee habitats that are required for native bee food and nests. The crops may not provide a suitable food sources for certain bee species and generalist bee species such as the honey bee suffer compromised immunity when only fed one source of pollen.

Our agricultural pollination needs cannot be met with honey bee pollination alone, as native bees are often specialised pollinators for crops honey bees cannot pollinate. For example, the solitary alfalfa leafcutting bee pollinates alfalfa, an important crop for animal feed and a plant with a trip-mechanism that honey bees avoid. Furthermore, native and honey bees can work cooperatively to pollinate, producing the maximum crop yield required for efficient food production.

The problems with taking over bee habitats can be partly resolved by leaving adequate wildflower borders between fields and in urban areas. This can link habitats and food sources (such as Norway’s bee highway) so that bees can move across the entire landscape.

Bees are interpretive dancers

Just as plants and bees are codependent, we are dependent on their relationship for survival and must do our best to keep bees healthy, and this means more research about all aspects of the lives of wild bees including their influence on pollination. Without knowledge of how they live and their habitat needs, we cannot adequately protect them.

Honey bees preform waggle dances to tell the rest of the hive where the best flowers are

In the case of the honey bee, we can find out what food sources it prefers by asking the bees themselves. Honey bees perform a waggle dance to communicate the direction and distance of their preferred food source, and how much they like it (a honey bee dance is more “vigorous” when they really value a food source).

By interpreting the dance of the honey bee workers, and identifying the pollen on their legs to determine which plant they are dancing about, we can find out where and when they like to forage. This information on foraging behaviour can also be used as an indicator of the biodiversity in the area, and whether the landscape is healthy for bees.

The knowledge we gain from the bees can be used to help conserve them, and in turn, conserve ourselves.

The Conversation

Marianne Peso is Lecturer/Postdoctoral Research Associate at Macquarie University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Welcome to the family, Pluto

Random Thoughts

Tanya Hill, Museum Victoria

What an amazing time for space exploration. The picture of the solar system from my childhood is now complete, as seen in this great family portrait produced by Ben Gross, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and distributed via twitter.

I love this image because it shows each world in close-up, using some of the latest pictures from space exploration. As we celebrate seeing Pluto for the first time, it’s remarkable to think that this completes a 50 year task.

It has been NASA that has provided the first close-up views of all these worlds. Here’s the rundown:

  • Mercury: Mariner 10 (1973)
  • Venus: Mariner 2 (1962)
  • Mars: Mariner 4 (1965)
  • Jupiter: Pioneer 10 (1973)
  • Saturn: Pioneer 11 (1979)
  • Uranus: Voyager 2 (1985)
  • Neptune: Voyager 2 (1989) and
  • Pluto: New Horizons (2015)

But science never stays still. When New Horizons left Earth…

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