Australia is set to ratify the second part of Kyoto Protocol – but it’s not a done deal

Ben Parr, University of Melbourne

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s pledge overnight in Paris that Australia will ratify the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol is welcome news.

The first phase of the Kyoto Protocol commenced in 2008 and concluded in 2012. In November 2007, in his first act as prime minister, Kevin Rudd ratified this phase, committing Australia to an emissions target to limit greenhouse gas emissions to 8% above 1990 levels over the 2008-2012 period.

The second phase of the Kyoto Protocol covers the period 2013 to 2020. This was agreed to by the parties to the Kyoto Protocol, including Australia, at the United Nations climate talks in Doha in 2012.

Turnbull’s pledge commits Australia to a 5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2000 levels in the second phase.

Presently, 54 countries have submitted their instruments of acceptance to the second commitment phase of the Kyoto Protocol. To enter into force however, three quarters of the nations to the Protocol will have to submit, which means 144 nations out of 192.

Australia’s pledge to ratify the second phase may encourage other countries to do the same. Alternatively, Australia’s low 2020 target, which some say is out-of-step with the rest of the world and the science of climate change, may simply further frustrate some developing countries. These countries are already very concerned that industrialised counties are continuing to side-step their leadership obligations under the existing UN climate regime.

Turnbull’s pledge comes as Australia’s new prime minister seeks to distinguish his government from his predecessor on this issue. This new tack is also consistent with Turnbull’s new positive message about opportunities and innovation, and with his previous position on climate as opposition leader in 2009.

This step means that the Turnbull government is locked into an emissions reduction target, but not the method of how to achieve it.

Not a done deal

Ultimately, Australia’s international policy position on climate change is determined by domestic politics.

In Australia’s political system ratifying international treaties, which includes the Kyoto Protocol Mark I and II, does not require any formal legislative approval. The final decision rests at a ministerial level, and ultimately the prime minister, with a keen eye to the mood of the party room.

Environment minister Greg Hunt said this morning that “Australia will ratify Kyoto II with the support of the cabinet and party room”. So it seems that this base is covered, for now. Indeed some in the Liberal party room are already warning against target increases.

The parliamentary oversight that does exist for treaties, for instance the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, is relatively weak, usually acting as a rubber stamp. So this aspect seems to be covered.

If Australia does ratify the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, it is entirely possible that sometime between now and 2020 we will see a switch to an emissions trading scheme (ETS), which would of course require the passage of a new bill through both houses of parliament.

The Climate Change Authority’s second draft report of Australian climate policy released yesterday required the authority to consider whether an ETS would harm Australia’s international competitiveness. This may mean designing an ETS that allows liable polluting firms to import an unlimited number of cheap international carbon credits to meet their emissions caps, reducing the incentive to clean up domestic production processes. We saw this previously under the Rudd-Turnbull Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

Other domestic constraints over national climate policies and Australia’s international negotiating positions may emerge externally from the Parliament, for example, from Australia’s fossil fuel lobby. However, public opinion, which is squarely behind strong action on climate change, may enable the government to propose stronger targets.

Obstacles abound before we get a clear picture of Australian climate policy moving forward.

The Conversation

Ben Parr, Research Fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

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


Australia hit its Kyoto target, but it was more a three-inch putt than a hole in one

Clive Hamilton

In the saga of mendacity that is the climate policy debate, no claim has been more audacious than the one now being told by the federal government about Australia’s “success” in meeting its Kyoto emissions target.

Environment minister Greg Hunt now routinely makes statements like this:

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.

Anyone who remembers how the Kyoto targets were set will understand how hollow this boast is.

Playing hardball

Australia went to the 1997 climate conference in Kyoto to play hardball. Prime Minister John Howard was never enthusiastic about addressing global warming but public sentiment meant his government had to be part of the emerging global consensus to do something serious.

And so the Australian delegation – stacked, incredibly enough, with representatives of the fossil fuel industries and led by environment minister Robert Hill – insisted that Australia be given special treatment.

Early in the conference the executive director of the convention secretariat, Michael Zammit Cutajar, referred to every country except Australia being committed to its success.

In the end, after an extraordinarily fraught two weeks and with a deal finally hammered out, Australia demanded it be allowed to increase its carbon emissions while the rest of the industrialised world cut theirs.

Compared to the base year of 1990, Europe promised to reduce its emissions by 8% in the five-year “commitment period”, 2008-12. The United States agreed to cut emissions by 7%, and Japan and Canada by 6%. Australia dug its heels in and got its way; its Kyoto target would be 8% above 1990 levels.

But that was only half of it. As the final gavel was about to be brought down to seal the agreement, Robert Hill stood to say that Australia would not sign up unless a special clause were inserted into the protocol.

The Australia clause

The article, which became known as “the Australia clause”, would allow the inclusion of carbon emissions from land clearing.

Hill knew that land clearing in Australia had declined sharply between 1990 and 1997 because there had been a spike in 1990, mainly in Queensland. So an 8% increase would be on top of an extraordinarily high and artificial 1990 base.

Hill understood that with the inclusion of the Australia clause, the nation’s emissions from burning fossil fuels could rise by 25-30% while overall emissions would still come in at under 8%.

This is precisely what has happened. From 1990 to 2012 Australia’s emissions from all sources except land-use change and forestry grew by 28%.

The only other nation to receive special treatment at Kyoto was a much poorer one, Russia.

Russia’s industrial collapse in the early 1990s meant that its emissions were much lower in 1997, so its Kyoto target of a 0% change in emissions by 2008-12 was regarded as a big free kick.

Emitting on easy street

While other nations would have to work reasonably hard to meet their commitments – under business as usual, Europe’s emissions were expected to rise by around 20% over the period, so cutting them by 8% would require serious effort – Australia would have to do virtually nothing.

At the time, Labor’s environment spokesman Duncan Kerr prophetically described the task given to Australia at Kyoto as a “three-inch putt”.

He was right; Australia did very little but still met its Kyoto target. It could hardly miss.

Yet after making this putt, the government now boasts about Australia’s “commitment” while deriding those nations that took on a six-foot putt (a putt, incidentally, that Europe successfully holed).

Australia won its extraordinary concessions by threatening to wreck the consensus. Writing for the Australian, Robert Garran and Stephen Lunn captured the moment when Australia got its way:

So after Senator Hill’s interjection, [the chair] Mr Estrada added a new sentence to the clause, tailor-made to give Australia the escape hatch it was seeking… These were the words which saved the conference and allowed Australia to join the protocol.

Undercurrents of resentment

Australia’s negotiating tactics, and the “victory” they delivered, generated resentment around the world.

The chief European negotiator, Ritt Bjerregaard, said that Australia had made a misleading case and “got away with it”. The European Union’s environmental policy spokesman Peter Jorgensen said that the Australian increase was “wrong and immoral“.

Leading developing countries were reported to be preparing to use the Australian precedent as the basis for a refusal to cut their emissions in future negotiations.

Two years later, when the dust had settled, two German analysts, Sebastian Oberthur and Hermann Ott, bracketed Australia with OPEC and Russia as the principal obstacles to progress in the negotiations.

The Kyoto targets surely have two main winners: Russia and Australia… The considerable increase in emissions allowed to Australia … has set a bad precedent for future negotiations, especially with regard to developing countries.

At the first cabinet meeting after Kyoto Robert Hill received a standing ovation.
The self-described “greenhouse mafia” of fossil fuel lobbyists was jubilant, and wrote to the Prime Minister congratulating the government on “the excellent outcome at Kyoto”.

Howard then put much of his greenhouse policy in the hands of Senator Nick Minchin, who went on to become the foremost climate science denier in the Liberal Party, even after the issue had cost Howard his prime ministership.

Promises, promises

This bitter history paints the current government’s recent bragging in its proper light.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott crowed that Australia is different from “a lot of other countries” because “when we make commitments to reduce emissions we keep them”.

He went on to insult nations that took on much tougher targets by accusing them of making “airy-fairy promises that in the end never come to … anything”.

It ought to be remembered that two years after winning a remarkably generous deal at Kyoto, the Howard government reneged on its commitment by announcing that it would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

It was the Rudd government, amid howls of protest from the Coalition, that in 2007 finally took Australia back into the international fold by ratifying the treaty.

John Howard was widely seen as Tony Abbott’s mentor and now, 18 years later, Abbott has jumped through the escape hatch that Howard inserted into the Kyoto Protocol to proclaim that Australia is the only nation taking its commitment seriously.

“Hypocrisy” is too mild a word to describe the behaviour of the present government. Abbott is cynically sticking two fingers up at the rest of the world.

Negotiators have long memories. As the crucial Paris negotiations approach, this is not the way to win friends and gain influence. But perhaps he does not care.

The Conversation

Clive Hamilton is Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE) at Charles Sturt University.

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

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 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.


Earth Hour is to be held this Saturday (March 28) between 8.30 pm and 9.30 pm. All you need to do to take part in Earth Hour is simply turn your lights off for the hour between 8.30 pm and 9.30 pm on March 28.

Earth Hour began as an annual event in Sydney in 2007, when an estimated 2.2 million buildings switched off their lights for an hour. This year Earth Hour is going global for the second year and is giving people the opportunity to ‘vote’ for either the Earth or global warning. By switching off the lights for an hour a person can ‘vote’ for fighting global warning.

Organisers of Earth Hour are hoping some 1 billion people will ‘vote’ for the Earth and hope to be able to give world leaders 1 billion ‘votes’ for the Earth at the Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen 2009. The conference is the forum in which world leaders will determine policy to supersede the Kyoto Protocol on Greenhouse Gas reduction.

For more on Earth Hour visit the official website at:  

However, is Earth Hour a colossal waste of time? What is really being gained by turning the lights off for an hour once a year? All other electrical devices are still on and a lot of people go for alternative lighting devices that also pollute the environment. Other than awareness of global warming (which I would suggest everyone knows about now and either believes or does not believe – turning off some lights won’t change anyone’s mind on global warming), what does Earth Hour really achieve?

The following Blog post makes for interesting reading:

Am I against reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions? Am I against reducing Global Warming and other associated disasters? Am I anti-environment? The answer to those questions is no! I’m just simply saying Earth Hour is little more than tokenism by most people who are against the Rudd government Greenhouse Gas Emissions reduction policies and other policies that actually aim to make a difference.