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Australia trounced Kyoto climate target, new report reveals

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon – shown at UN headquarters with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop last year – is urging governments and businesses to bring “bold pledges” to a UN summit later this year. EPA/Jason Szenes

After a week of mostly bad news on climate change, new figures reveal that Australia easily beat its first internationally-agreed climate target, with nearly 131 million tonnes of emissions to spare. That’s the equivalent of shutting down three-quarters of Australia’s power stations for a year.

Significantly, the better-than-expected result will make it even easier for Australia to meet emissions targets for 2020 and beyond. That’s because the 131 million tonne shortfall can be carried over and counted towards the cuts Australia has promised to make by 2020, under the Kyoto Protocol.

The Australian government’s current target is to cut emissions 5% below 2000 levels by 2020. But some experts say the new figures will add to pressure to lift the 2020 target, particularly leading up to a United Nations climate summit in New York in September and global negotiations in Paris next year.

Australia’s first Kyoto Protocol target was not to cut emissions outright by 2012, but to slow their growth, so that the total was no more than 108% of the amount of emissions produced in 1990.

However, new Australian National Greenhouse Accounts reports – published without fanfare on the Department of the Environment’s website on Tuesday – reveal that the target was beaten by more than had been predicted. The latest quarterly emissions report shows that:

Australia has met its Kyoto Protocol target of limiting emissions to 108% of 1990 levels, on average, over the Kyoto period 2008–2012. Over the five reporting years in the Kyoto period (2008 to 2012), Australia’s net emissions averaged 103% of the base year level.

The estimated net surplus in 2012 was 36.9 [million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions] and the total net surplus over the entire 5-year first commitment period was 130.8 [million tonnes].

Tougher targets

The updated figure is 15 million tonnes more than an independent review for the Australian government estimated less than two months ago.

In February, that Climate Change Authority review estimated that Australia’s emissions from 2008–2012 had averaged 104% of 1990 levels, giving Australia 116 million tonnes of greenhouse emissions rights to carryover to its 2013–2020 Kyoto commitment.

The Authority – whose members include former Reserve Bank governor Bernie Fraser, Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, Reserve Bank board member Heather Ridout and economist Clive Hamilton – recommended:

Australia increase its minimum 2020 emissions reduction target from 5 to 15 per cent below 2000 levels. Australia has 4 per cent credit from past action to reduce emissions (‘carryover’). The Authority recommends this be used to strengthen the 2020 target to 19 per cent.

Professor Hamilton now says the Authority would have recommended an even higher target, had these updated environment department figures been available earlier this year.

“It would have led the Authority to recommend a 20% reduction by 2020, rather than a 19% reduction.”

Professor Hamilton said that beating the target so easily was “nothing to brag about”, arguing it reflected an “outrageously generous target” that Australia won at the Kyoto negotiations in 1997.

He also pointed to the unexpected fall in emissions from the electricity sector over recent years, “a reversal of a 100-year increasing trend that caught everyone by surprise”.

“Policy has had only a small impact, although it was starting to bite when the Abbott government was elected and began dismantling effective responses to climate change,” he said.

The latest report on Australia’s emissions, broken down into major sectors. December 2013 quarterly report, Department of the Environment, CC BY

Melbourne University political scientist and Australian Conservation Foundation board member Peter Christoff also called for a higher climate target: “Based on these new figures, our minimum 2020 target should be lifted from 19% to at least 20%.”

Dr Christoff said other factors had inadvertently contributed to the fall in Australian emissions before 2012, including the high Australian dollar squeezing manufacturing. “What we need is good targeted policy, rather than seeing outcomes like this coming from random and uncontrolled actions.”

“It’s worth noting that the 5% reduction below what was expected between 2008 and 2012 occurred when there were no substantial policies in place to assist in emissions reductions: major initiatives like the carbon tax had not come into force. Since then, more companies have geared up to deal with climate change, and proper mitigation measures would put a higher target than we currently have for 2020 well within reach.”

Beyond Kyoto?

Associate professor of law at the University of Western Australia David Hodgkinson has long been critical of the Kyoto process. He said the latest government figures highlighted what a “generous” target Australia had with its first Kyoto target.

But he remains concerned that the current United Nations process could actually get in the way of effective global action.

“A survey of climate change law and policy at the national, sub-national and city levels reveals significant – and potentially significant – bottom-up action in both developed and developing states, and outside the top-down [United Nations] framework.

"At some point … [we may see] a shift away from a top-down, ‘Kyoto-style’ architecture for international climate action, to an approach involving smaller agreements between states and/or sectors, or to sub-national actors (including provinces, councils, cities) taking action where they can.”

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