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FactCheck: has Australia met its climate goals, while other nations make ‘airy-fairy promises’?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has suggested Australia has been true to its emissions reduction commitments but that other countries have not. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

The difference between Australia and a lot of other countries … is when we make commitments to reduce emissions we keep them. Other countries make all these airy fairy promises, that in the end never come to … anything. – Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, July 13, 2015.

There are two parts to the Prime Minister’s statement: in the first, he affirms that to date Australia has been true to its emissions reduction commitments; in the second, he suggests that other countries have not.

Has Australia kept its emissions reduction commitments?

International negotiations on climate change have been underway since the 1990s. The first set of emissions-reduction commitments were made for the 2008-12 period under an agreement known as the Kyoto Protocol. Developed countries agreed to restrict their greenhouse gas emissions by predetermined amounts over the period.

An entire set of rules, procedures and methodologies was established to account for and monitor greenhouse gas emissions over that period. And of course, each country set its own target and negotiated special conditions along with it.

Under the 2008-12 agreement, Australia’s target was to keep the increase in its emissions to within 8% of 1990 levels. Australia effectively met that target.

The subsequent commitment period is from 2013 to 2020. Over this period, Australia initially committed to reducing its emissions by 5% unconditionally and potentially by as much as 15% or 25% below 2000 levels by 2020. The higher targets were contingent on there being commensurate action from other countries (and the Climate Change Authority found that these conditions have, in fact, been met).

Australia reaffirmed the full range of targets as recently as the climate change negotiations in Doha in 2012. However, in subsequent climate change conferences, Australia has talked of its 5% target but not mentioned the 15% or 25% targets until pressed to do so (see webcast here). The website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade mentions only the 5% target and the government has stated that:

The Government is committed to reducing Australia’s emissions by 5% below 2000 levels by 2020… Any additional targets will be reviewed in 2015 in the lead up to the Paris conference, as has been our longstanding position.

Have other countries kept their emissions reduction commitments?

There was a fair range in commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. The European Union, as a bloc, committed to reducing emissions by 8% on 1990 levels over the 2008-12 period; New Zealand pledged a 0% increase; and Australia, as mentioned, committed to 108% of 1990 levels.

Importantly, only developed countries made commitments because these countries bear a responsibility to act first and foremost. However, over the past couple of years, developing countries have begun to make pledges to limit future greenhouse gas emissions (by 2020, 2025 or 2030).

Under the accounting rules of the Kyoto Protocol, there are a few ways that countries can meet their targets. The main one is to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. However, if a country cannot reduce emissions sufficiently in its national territory, it can buy emissions reduction credits from another country, or it can pay for emissions reductions in another country. These options are known as flexibility mechanisms.

Although the Kyoto Protocol commitment period ended in 2012, the accounting rules state that countries can continue buying and selling credits into 2015. This extended period is known as the “true-up” period. Because the true-up period is ongoing, there is still some wiggle room for countries to buy extra credits and thus keep their promises.

Looking to the numbers

Shown in the chart below, we have calculated from official figures submitted to United Nations body that manages the Kyoto Protocol how countries are tracking against their Kyoto targets. As the charts below show, a number of countries and blocs have done even better than they originally promised, including the European Union (which reduced its emissions 18% below its Kyoto target), Australia and New Zealand.

The chart below shows by how much countries have come in above or below their targets. For example, Australia is shown as -4% because it came in 4% below the target it agreed to meet.

For those countries that didn’t reach their emissions reduction target, this second chart shows how they could meet their targets through the use of international emissions credits already purchased.

From looking at both of these charts, one country stands out: Japan.

Japan committed to a 6% reduction on its 1990 level of emissions. It is 1% above its stated target. Japan’s excess of emissions is in part due to the government’s response to the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011. Following the meltdown, the government reduced its reliance on nuclear power and was forced to resort to additional fossil fuel based energy.

However, Japan has continually affirmed that it will meet its Kyoto target (see here and here). It can still do so by purchasing offset credits as part of the flexibility mechanisms.

What about the US and Canada?

Both the United States and Canada are missing from the table. The proposed US target was a 7% reduction. However, the US never ratified the Kyoto Protocol and therefore the proposal is not considered a “promise”.

Canada pledged a 6% reduction on its 1990 levels. Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2011 citing the absence of the US and China (the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters) as the reason.

Given the lack of Kyoto accounting data, an exact evaluation of Canada’s emissions cannot be made against its stated targets. However, the United Nations provides a graph here, that suggests that Canada is unlikely to have met its target (even with the use of flexibility mechanisms).


The Prime Minister is correct on the implication in the first part of his statement: that Australia has met its previous target under the Kyoto Protocol. However, this was not an emissions reduction commitment; it was a commitment to limit its emissions increase. Australia also made a 2020 emissions reduction promise to strengthen its target to -15% or -25%, but this “never came to anything”.

The Prime Minister is incorrect on the implication in the second part of his statement: that most other countries have not met their targets. One country (Canada) out of 39 developed countries made a promise that came to nothing; and one other country (Japan) did not reduce its own emissions by as much as it said it would (however, Japan can still fulfil its promise by buying emission credits from elsewhere).


The article is correct. It is true that with the major exception of Japan, countries that ratified the Kyoto treaty have met their commitments – including Australia. However, to some degree this was not really due to their efforts, with both Russia and other Eastern European countries benefiting from economic collapse and Europe to some degree benefiting from the 2008-9 recession. Canada did not meet its target and broke its promise by pulling out of Kyoto. It seems the United States met its original proposal (partly due to recession) without ever ratifying Kyoto.

At this stage, developing countries have made emissions proposals for 2020 only, and so it is too early to tell what will happen. China appears to be on track so far, though. Britain and some other countries have made longer-term pledges. But they can’t be assessed yet either, of course.

So, the majority of pledging countries have met their targets, though sometimes by accident. Technically, all those who remained in Kyoto apart from Japan met the targets. – David Stern

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