UK United Kingdom

The Australian Government, Kyoto and the illusion of progress

The Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Greg Combet, announced on Friday that Australia is “ready” to join a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework…

Global energy use must grow substantially every year to keep up with population - our decarbonisation efforts aren’t making inroads. Carolyn Chan

The Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Greg Combet, announced on Friday that Australia is “ready” to join a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Such readiness, however, is heavily qualified; Mr Combet further stated that it is conditional on, among a number of other things, “progress in international negotiations towards [a] … new 2015 agreement”.

A “Platform for Enhanced Action” was launched at the UN climate change negotiations in Durban last year – a non-binding agreement to develop “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” under the UNFCCC and applicable to all parties, both developed and developing (unlike Kyoto).

Any such document is to be concluded by 2015 – with “pledges” from developed and developing state parties to reduce emissions. It will ostensibly come into effect and be implemented from 2020. These state parties would also, of course, need to ratify such agreement.

Any agreement resulting from the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action would include (as Mr Combet stated) China, the United States, the EU, India, Japan and Brazil. It is important to note, however, that the Durban Platform is simply an agreement to reach agreement – an agreement to agree. This has been recognised, post-Durban, by India’s environment minister who has said that the “agreement” does not mean that “India has to take binding commitments to reduce its emissions in absolute terms in 2020”.

Greg Combet announces Australia’s new commitment.

If (and it’s a big “if”) parties reach agreement and targets commence in 2020 (as Mr Combet anticipates), what happens between now and then? This is a decade critical for limiting the rise in global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the global warming limit adopted by parties to the UNFCCC.

Some states will, and some states may, take voluntary action, but verification and other issues attend such action. And China and India, of course, will not have legally binding targets in any Kyoto second commitment period to which Mr Combet referred in his announcement. (Indeed, in this second commitment period Kyoto will cover only about 14 or 15% of the world’s emissions – a figure widely used at Durban.)

In 2007 the non-binding Bali “road map” was agreed with a view to a post-2012 agreement. Now there is “agreement” – the Durban Platform – procedural in nature, to work towards a 2015 agreement with a 2020 start date for developed and developing states. And as time elapses, and with every delay, the ambitions for agreement unsurprisingly increase.

It’s the illusion of progress. It’s even more illusory in a world where, if an agreement was to be concluded between (let’s just say) only the world’s five largest emitters (developed or developing) – China (29%), the US (16%), India (6%), Russia (5%) and Japan (4%), none of whom have had (or will have) targets under the Kyoto process – such an agreement would cover 60% of global emissions (and 71% if the EU is added).

Perhaps it’s time to consider alternatives to (on one view) the broken top-down UNFCCC process. One alternative way forward would be to break the climate change problem up into different pieces, to contemplate a more decentralised arrangement in which particular issues are discussed and negotiated.

One academic has said that, “since an agreement among the major emitters is unlikely anytime soon, we should seek progress where we can, through whatever means and in any forums that are available”. Two others propose a climate change “regime complex” – a loosely coupled set of specific regimes. And yet others refer to an incremental “building blocks” approach.

Mr Combet referred in his announcement yesterday to the “lived experience”. In global terms, the planet’s lived human experience has resulted in a range of problems related to (or with implications for) climate change: ocean acidification, loss of rainforests, desertification, the growth of megacities, and famine, for example. All of these global problems become more difficult and then impossible to solve “with ever more people”, as David Attenborough has noted.

Growing global population amplifies a range of other threats, and they are all related to climate change: resource scarcity, for example, and the energy crisis. And energy of course goes to the heart of the climate change problem. Michael Klare notes that “the world economy is structured in such a way that standing still in energy production is not an option. In order to satisfy the [world’s] staggering needs … global energy must grow substantially every year”.

Mr Combet said that, “[a]s the world increases the extent of its action on climate change, Australia’s domestic scheme means that we have the ability to match that action”. According to PwC, however, the world economy needs to reduce its carbon intensity by 5.1% every year to 2050 to have a fair chance of keeping to the 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels target I referred to earlier. Yet to get even to 4 degrees implies nearly quadrupling the current rate of decarbonisation. (PwC notes that the decarbonisation rate required for 2 degrees has not been achieved in a single year since the Second World War.)

Australia’s carbon intensity grew by 6.7% in 2011.

Join the conversation

14 Comments sorted by

  1. Zvyozdochka

    logged in via Twitter

    "Australia’s carbon intensity grew by 6.7% in 2011."

    Not in our house. Nearly 6 years ago we built as sustainable a house as we could; Passihaus concepts, solar PV (4 panels facing west, rest north), solar hot water, a micro wind turbine, plantation timber, grey water use, rainwater tanks. We put the marginal extra cost on the home loan.

    I'm looking to go off-grid at the moment, with some off-the-shelf 12V AGM 120Ah deep cycle boat batteries and 12V circuit through the house plus an inverter…

    Read more
    1. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Zvyozdochka

      You are a great example that living standards don't need to fall to become low carbon.

      But note that when the carbon tax becomes an ETS, Australia's emissions will be set by that ETS.

      So if you choose to lower your emissions, that just means that someone else will use your certificates instead, and so all you have achieved is very slightly lowering the price of the emissions certificates, without making any difference to actual emissions.

      Just now the concerned individual's cuts make very…

      Read more
    2. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      PS - That a future ETS will determine Australia's emissions also shows how silly it is to make a fuss about closing down a dirty power station, and the nonsense of paying someone to shut this down.

      The lack or rationality of the deniers is obvious. But perhaps just as sad is the lack of rationality in the environmental groups who think that shutting down Hazelwood in Victoria will make any difference.

    3. Suzy Gneist

      Multiple: self-employed, employed, student, mother, volunteer, Free-flyer

      In reply to Zvyozdochka

      Yep, I can agree with that, Z. We build a strawbale insulated passive solar house 11 years ago and I haven't paid for electricity for years due to investing in solar HW & PV and not using electricity for heating or cooling. We have most of the mod-cons we require and my kids have grown up with an awareness of 'switching off'.
      As to ETS, trading them into funds who do not use them as offsets is one option to reduce emissions - I for one am not interested in saving the planet in my own small way so someone else can pollute it in my stead ;)

    4. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Suzy, the cost of buying enough ETS permits and then not using them, so that this make a significant reduction in emissions, is incredibly high.

      Our emissions are about 550Mt, so at $20 a tonne, it would cost $110 million to buy the permits to reduce emissions by 1%.

      And to properly act on climate change our emissions in 2020 should reduced by about 40% from our 1990 levels.

      So a great idea, but one that won't work in practice.

  2. John Newlands

    tree changer

    In my opinion the countries that are making an effort (albeit weak) should make life harder for the rogues. The single most effective method is probably to slap arbitrary carbon tariffs of say 10% or 20% on goods made in China. It shares the pain as we (Australia, EU, Nordic countries) pay more they sell less. I believe the legal authority to do this exists under anti-dumping laws.

    Really Australia is kidding itself thinking it is a leading light in emissions cuts. The 5% absolute reduction over 20 years is woefully weak; allowing questionable carbon credits is essentially dishonest as is encouraging the export of coal which swamps paltry domestic cuts twentyfold or more. All considered it is simply not good enough.

    1. Chris O'Neill

      Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

      In reply to John Newlands

      "I believe the legal authority to do this exists under anti-dumping laws."

      The authority should exist simply on the basis of taxing embodied carbon emissions. This is a major flaw with Australia's carbon tax. Imported goods that Australians consume cause the generation of carbon emissions in producing countries but these goods carry no Australian carbon tax on those emissions. Usually there is no carbon tax on them in the producing countries either.

  3. Mike Chapman

    logged in via Twitter

    I'm intrigued by the choice of image used to illustrate energy consumption. The sight of a city such as Sydney with externally illuminated office buildings and bright advertising signage as well ass office lighting, street lighting and urban glare and glow is the most obvious form of energy consumption and waste ans is the form that little is done to restrict. Reducing carbon emissions by reducing energy consumption can be done only in two ways and that is restricting the current consumption and restricting the energy consumption of future practices and technologies. The ability to go after the easy targets of current energy consumption practices by introducing legislation to control light trespass and spillage could be a quick win on two levels, one in real terms and another at a fundamental level of understanding that light is energy and darker cities mean smaller power bills and reduced emissions.

  4. Dave Smith

    Energy Consultant


    Your selective quoting of statistics does you no credit. The FULL quote from the PWC report you link to (in relation to Carbon Intensity) is:

    "Carbon intensity grew significantly in 2011 (6.7%), reversing the decarbonisation seen in 2010 (of 10.9%). "

    So, in fact, Australia decarbonised by around 2% per year over the two years, which is roughly the medium term trend.

    1. David Hodgkinson

      Associate Professor, Law School at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Dave Smith

      Dear David: With regard to the substantive part of your comment, I do only cite 2011 given the importance of the growth in carbon intensity in the last year for which statistics are availaible. In terms of the 2010 figure to which you refer, I also did not cite that part of the PwC report which stated that 2010 was anomalous. Thanks for your comment. David

  5. Michael Lardelli

    logged in via Facebook

    The government can never really be serious about tackling climate change as long as it encourges the population to grow through mass immigration and the baby bonus. The 2020 net emissions reduction target of 5% means a >20% per capita emissions reduction target. It just shows how population growth destroys all other attempts at living sustainably within the limits of our ecosystem.

    1. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Michael Lardelli

      At one stage Labor tried to talk about emissions reductions as emission per person. With our migration and natural population growth (which is unusual for rich countries) we would then be able to increase the countries emissions whilst reducing the emissions per person.

      Fortunately this bit of spin failed to catch on, and we, like very other country talk about the countries emissions.
      (Except most people probably think of the 5% cut as a real cut of what we do - not something which is achieved by buying cheap offsets from overseas.)

      Labor's second major spin was to to talk about reductions from 2000, even though most other countries use 1990 as the base figure. Unfortunately this has become the normal way to talk about our emissions, and we even get case of comparing our emissions with other countries with no mention that the base year is different.

  6. Chris O'Neill

    Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

    "Global energy use must grow substantially every year to keep up with population "

    Indeed. But for population growth, Australia could be reducing its carbon emissions by 20% by 2020 instead of 5%.

  7. Peter Wood

    Research Fellow

    The claim that Australia's carbon intensity grew by 6.7% from 2010 to 2011 is based on a BP emissions dataset and is unlikely to be true. The BP data also had a drop in carbon intensity from 2009 to 2010 that was over 10%, but Australia greenhouse gas emissions inventory (and other datasets, such as from the IEA) did not show a drop in carbon intensity in 2010 of anything like this magnitude.