3 reasons meeting climate targets and dumping Kyoto credits won’t salvage Australia’s international reputation


Matt McDonald, The University of Queensland

Today, the Morrison government released updated projections of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, which indicate Australia is on track to meet 2030 Paris targets without using “carryover” credits earned from the Kyoto Protocol period.

Australia’s plan to use Kyoto carryover credits to meet Paris targets have long been contentious. The government claims that because emissions fell by more than Australia had committed to under the Kyoto Protocol, they should be allowed to carry these “credits” forward to the Paris agreement. Yet legal experts and other governments have suggested there’s no basis for applying these to the Paris agreement, which is a separate agreement.

The new modelling is good news for the Morrison government, which has been under increasing domestic and international pressure over its climate policy. And Prime Minister Scott Morrison is likely to announce this development proudly at the virtual Pacific Islands Forum on Friday night.

So are the latest projections enough to salvage Australia’s reputation on this issue? That appears unlikely.

Dumping credits

Under the Paris Agreement, Australia committed to reducing emissions by 26-28% of 2005 levels by 2030. This target has been widely criticised for years for being too meagre, but previous modelling had suggested even meeting this target was unlikely unless carryover credits were used.




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The latest modelling suggests if the recently-announced technology roadmap — a policy which will support new and emerging clean energy technologies — is taken into account, then Australia would beat its 2030 target by 145 million tonnes. In other words, by 2030 Australia could be 29% under 2005 levels, without using carryover credits.

Morrison had flagged he would announce that Australia will dump the Kyoto credits at a global leaders’ climate summit at the weekend. However, it’s unlikely he’ll be given a speaking slot by the hosts, a reflection of his failure to make meaningful climate commitments. This is why he’ll probably make the announcement to Pacific leaders tomorrow night instead.

But even if Morrison announces he’ll scrap the controversial carryovers tomorrow, our international counterparts will still regard Australia as a climate change laggard. There are three big reasons why.

1. Our Paris target is still unambitious

A reduction of 26-28% by 2030 from 2005 levels is well below the commitments of other countries under the Paris Agreement. And under the Paris Agreement, states were encouraged to ratchet up their commitments to emissions over time.

Yet unlike other countries, Australia has not made any indication of a plan to outline a more ambitious contribution ahead of the CoP26 meeting in Glasgow next year.




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It’s also worth recalling Australia’s 2005 baseline is a comparatively easy starting point. Under the Kyoto Protocol, Australia was one of only two developed countries allowed to increase its greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2008-12.

This means most other developed countries had already reduced emissions in sectors where it was easiest for them to do so — the “low hanging fruit”. This makes further commitments under Paris more challenging for those countries than Australia.

2. Improved projections are no thanks to federal policy

If we don’t have to use Kyoto carry-over credits to meet Paris targets, it may be despite — rather than because — of federal government policy.

Simply put, much of the decline in (projected) emissions can be attributed to the actions of state governments, which have more actively supported the renewable energy sector.

Wind turbines against a sunet
The revision in the 2020 projections partly reflects new measures to speed up development and deployment of low emissions technologies in the recent budget.
Shutterstock

By contrast (and despite claims to the contrary) the government continues to commit billions of dollars to subsidising the fossil fuel industry. Yet there are clear indications of a declining future market for coal in particular.




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While the technology investment roadmap, a federal policy, may serve to further drive down emissions, this is still far from clear.

3. There’s still no commitment to a net zero emissions timetable

The European Union has had a long-standing commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. More recently it has been joined by other major emitters in Japan and South Korea, while emissions giant China has committed to net zero emissions by 2060.

US President-elect Joe Biden has also committed the US to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and to return the US to the Paris agreement.

And yet, the Morrison government continues to baulk at setting a net zero emissions timetable, preferring to describe this as a general ambition rather than endorse a specific target or date.




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The response from the Pacific will be telling

Australia consistently ranks among the worst performers internationally on the Climate Change Performance Index, and there are indications already that other states will actively pressure Australia on climate ambition and action in the lead up to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26).

Combined with steadily growing domestic pressure to act on climate change and weakening financial prospects for Australia’s coal exports, international pressure may contribute to a perfect storm for the Morrison government on climate policy.

The response Morrison receives at the virtual Pacific Islands Forum to this position will be telling.




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The region has long been deeply critical of Australia’s climate policy, and is at the frontlines of climate change impacts such as sea level rises, natural disasters and ocean acidification.

While Morrison may avoid the same diplomatic fallout from the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum on this issue, he’s unlikely to find an audience wholly convinced Australia now recognises the scale of the threat climate change poses.The Conversation

Matt McDonald, Associate Professor of International Relations, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Today, Australia’s Kyoto climate targets end and our Paris cop-out begins. That’s nothing to be proud of, Mr Taylor



Mick Tsikas/AAP

Penny van Oosterzee, James Cook University

Today marks the end of Australia’s commitments under the Kyoto climate deal as we move to its successor, the Paris Agreement. Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor on Wednesday was quick to hail Australia’s success in smashing the Kyoto emissions targets. But let’s be clear: our record is nothing to boast about.

Taylor says Australia has beaten Kyoto by up to 430 million tonnes — or 80% of one year of national emissions. On that record, he said, “Australians can be confident that we’ll meet and beat our 2030 Paris target”.




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The fact that Australia exceeded its Kyoto targets means it’s accrued so-called “carryover” carbon credits. It plans to use these to cover about half the emission reduction required under the Paris commitment by 2030.

But there’s been little scrutiny of why Australia met the Kyoto targets so easily. The reason dates back more than 20 years, when Australia demanded the Kyoto rules be skewed in its favour. Using those old credits to claim climate action today is cheating the system. Let’s look at why.

The Paris climate deal officially starts today.
Daniel Munoz/Reuters

Australian scorns the spirit of Paris

The Kyoto Protocol was an international treaty negotiated in 1997. Industrialised nations collectively pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% below 1990 levels. The reductions were to be made between 2008 and 2012.

Any surplus emissions reduction in the first Kyoto period could be carried over to the second period, from 2013 to 2020. In the name of climate action, five developed countries – Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK – voluntarily cancelled their surplus credits.

However, Australia held onto its credits. Now it wants to use them to meet its Paris target – reducing emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030.

This is clearly not in the spirit of the Paris agreement. And importantly, the history of Kyoto shows Australia did not deserve to earn the credits in the first place.

Sneaky negotiations

Under Kyoto, each nation was assigned a target – measured against the nation’s specific baseline of emissions produced in 1990. During negotiations, Australia insisted on rules that worked in its favour.

Instead of reducing its emissions by 5.2%, it successfully demanded a lenient target that meant emissions in 2012 could be 8% more than they were in 1990.

Our negotiators argued we had special economic circumstances – that our dependence on fossil fuels and energy-intensive exports meant cutting emissions would be difficult. Australia threatened to walk away from the negotiations if its demand was not met.

Australia negotiated an advantageous deal under the UN Kyoto protocol.
Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

Australia then waited until the final moments of negotiations – when many delegates were exhausted and translators had gone home – to make another surprising demand. It would only sign up to Kyoto if its 1990 emissions baseline (the year future reductions would be measured against) included emissions produced from clearing forests.

Here’s the catch. Australia’s emissions from forest clearing in 1990 were substantial, totalling about a quarter of total emissions, or 131.5 million tonnes of carbon.




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Forest clearing in Australia plummeted after 1990, when Queensland enacted tough new land clearing laws. So including deforestation emissions in Australia’s baseline meant we would never really struggle to meet – or as it turned out, beat – our targets. In fact, the rule effectively rewarded Australia for its mass deforestation in 1990.

This concession was granted, and became known as the Australia clause. It triggered international condemnation, including from the European environment spokesman who reportedly called it “wrong and immoral”.

Then prime minister John Howard declared the deal to be “splendid”.

John Howard was thrilled with Australia’s concessions under Kyoto.
LYNDON MECHIELSEN/AAP

A new round of Kyoto negotiations took place in 2010, for the second commitment period. Under the Gillard Labor government, Australia agreed to an underwhelming 5% decrease in emissions between 2013 and 2020.

Australia insisted on using the deforestation clause again, despite international pressure to drop it. It meant Australia’s carbon budget in the second period was about 26% higher than it would have been without the concession.

Had forest clearing not been included in the 1990 baseline, Australia’s emissions in 2017 were 31.8% above 1990 levels.

Forest clearing in 1990 made it easy for Australia to beat Kyoto targets.
Harley Kingston/Flickr

History repeats

At the Madrid climate talks last year, Australia reiterated its plans to use its surplus Kyoto credits under Paris. Without the accounting trick, Australia is not on track to meet its Paris targets.

Laurence Tubiana, a high-ranking architect of the Paris accord, expressed her disdain at the plan:

If you want this carryover, it is just cheating. Australia was willing in a way to destroy the whole system, because that is the way to destroy the whole Paris agreement.

Whether Australia will be allowed to use the surplus credits is another question, as the Paris rulebook is still being finalised.

Analysts say there is no legal basis for using the surplus credits, because Kyoto and Paris are separate treaties.

Australia appears the only country shameless enough to try the tactic. At Senate estimates last year, officials said they knew of no other nation planning to use carryover credits.

Protesters in Spain in January 2020, calling for global climate action.
JJ Guillen Credit/EPA

Nothing to be proud of

Some hoped Australia’s recent bushfire disaster might be a positive turning point for climate policy. But the signs are not good. The Morrison government is talking up the role of gas in Australia’s energy transition, and has so far failed to seize the opportunity to recharge the economy through renewables investment.

Crowing on Wednesday about Australia’s over-achievement on Kyoto, Taylor said the result was “something all Australians can be proud of”.

But Australia abandoned its moral obligations under Kyoto. And by carrying our surplus credits into the Paris deal, we risk cementing our status as a global climate pariah.




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The Conversation


Penny van Oosterzee, Adjunct Associate Professor James Cook University and University Fellow Charles Darwin University, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.