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

John Howard is a role model for the Abbott government, but the world remembers his hardline climate tactics in 1997 less fondly. AAP Photo/ Bluey Thomson

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.