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Cabinet papers 1992-93: Australia reluctant while world moves towards first climate treaty

Cabinet papers from 1992 and 1993 released today by the National Archives of Australia confirm that Australia was a reluctant player in international discussions about climate change and environmental issues under Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Internationally, it was an exciting time for the environment. In June 1992, the UN Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro. Here the world negotiated the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (which last year gave us the Paris Agreement) and opened the Convention on Biological Diversity for signing.

So what was Australia doing?

Australia stumbles towards climate policy

Domestically, the focus was on Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD), a policy process begun by Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Working groups made up of corporate representatives, environmentalists and bureaucrats had beavered away and produced hundreds of recommendations.

By the final report in December 1991, the most radical recommendations (gasp – a price on carbon!) had been weeded out. Democrats Senator John Coulter warned of bureaucratic hostility to the final recommendations. Keating replaced Hawke in the same month.

The August 1992 meeting, where the ESD policies were meant to be agreed upon, was so disastrous that the environmentalists walked out and even the corporates felt aggrieved.

Two interim reports on the ESD process from the cabinet papers fill in some of the detail.

The first interim report, in March 1992, said that government departments had not been able to identify which recommendations to take on board. Cabinet moved the process on, but the only policies on the table were those that involved:

…little or no additional cost, cause minimal disruption to industry or the community, and which also offer benefits other than greenhouse related.

By May, federal ministers were told that the states and territories weren’t committed to either ESD or greenhouse gas policies.

The policy process rumbled on after the walkout, finally producing a National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development and a National Greenhouse Response Strategy. The greenhouse strategy contained only – surprise! – toothless voluntary measures, which proved ineffective in keeping emissions down to 1990 levels.

The November 1992 minutes mildly note that:

Most major interest groups have voiced concerns about their lack of involvement in the drafting of the NGRS [greenhouse strategy] document. Officials made provision for community input through the public comment process and a public consultative forum held in August [the one the environmentalists walked out of]. Reaction from conservation groups is likely to be negative, given the limited changes made to many of the responses in the revised strategy. They are likely to want to see more concerted efforts in areas such as fuel efficiency and renewable energy sources.


With equal prescience, the document warns:

Coal producers and resource-intensive industries (eg. aluminium) may express concern about their prospects in the medium to long term.

There are not many surprises here. The dithering over climate and environmental policies has been well covered by Clive Hamilton, David Cox, Joan Staples and numerous academic papers (see here, here, here, and here).

And while we won’t know officially who said what for another 30 years, there are tantalising hints in Neal Blewett’s A Cabinet Diary. Published in 1999, it reveals the antagonism between the environment minister and others in the Keating cabinet.

The international stage

International climate policy was dominated by the US threat, under President George Bush senior, not to attend the Earth Summit if the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) included specific emission-reduction targets. The US attended, and the UNFCCC didn’t include targets.

In Australia, the cabinet papers point out, not for the first or last time, that:

Australia is the only developed megadiverse country; it is a major user and exporter of greenhouse gas producing fossil fuels and energy intensive products; it could be significantly affected by global environmental change.

In May 1992 cabinet endorsed in principle support for the UNFCCC. There are three ironies here.

First, it was a major concern that the media statement to accompany Environment Minister Ros Kelly’s signing should be amended to include the fact that:

The Convention does not bind any signatory to meet any greenhouse gas target by a specified date.

Second, the minutes note that:

A decision by Australia not to sign the Convention would be criticised by domestic environment interests and could also attract international criticism, particularly in the Pacific region.

In later years, Prime Minister John Howard would not worry about this when repeatedly nixing ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.

Third, an emphasis on assisting developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region with climate adaptation looks odd given there had been zero mention of greenhouse gases in a March 1992 discussion document of aid to Cambodia (that country is feeling the effects already).

Keating’s willingness to let Kelly sign the convention may have been related to the following:

The Convention contains several safeguards which protect Australia’s interests … [A]llowance is made for “the differences in Parties’ starting points and approaches, economic structures and resource bases, and the need to maintain strong and sustainable economic growth, available technologies and other individual circumstances”. Additionally, Parties are obliged to take into consideration the situation of Parties with economies that are highly dependent on the production, processing, export and use of fossil fuels. These two provisions will give relevant countries, including Australia, flexibility in fulfilling their obligations under the Convention.

And they probably thought they had more time than they actually did. The May 1992 note argues:

[The UNFCCC] is likely to take some years to obtain the necessary ratifications to bring it into force.

It took two. Australia ratified the treaty in December 1992, but not before noting that the UNFCCC would worry industry for being too strong, and environmental groups for being too weak. So no changes there.

What happened next

At least when it comes to climate policy, there are no real secrets worthy of the name. We have always known that the Australian state quickly retreated from its already hedged promise to take action, and told us all along that this was because we had a lot of coal.

While Australia’s international credibility has flatlined (with a brief bump from 2007 to 2009), two other things have soared over the last 25 years: Australia’s coal exports, and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. Both look set to continue their upward trend.

Reading the documents, it is striking how concerned the cabinet was to minimise its financial commitments (unsurprising, perhaps, given the overall state of the economy at the time), and just how unimportant the climate issue was to leaders who ask us to trust them on the long-term future of the country. It seems it was a distant abstraction that many didn’t really think was real. How times have changed.

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