Australia blocks progress at greenhouse conference

Issue 

By Pip Hinman

Reports of a giant breakaway iceberg and a new 64-kilometre crack in the Larsen ice shelf in the Antarctic peninsula — dramatic indicators of warmer weather — seem to have had little or no impact on the major greenhouse gas culprits at the world climate conference in Berlin. Australia and the United States are leading the charge against strict controls of greenhouse gas emissions in the two-week conference, which began on March 28.

Michael Krockenberger, the Australian Conservation Foundation's climate campaigner, who is in Berlin, told Green Left Weekly, "There is a reluctance on the part of a group of developed countries — Japan, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — to support any greenhouse gas reduction targets".

Australia, in a statement to the conference on March 30, failed to indicate whether it will push for industrialised countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions after the year 2000. "This omission places Australia with those countries doing the most to minimise the outcomes of the conference. Australia was one of only a small number of industrialised countries which made statements which did not refer to reductions."

Krockenberger said that Australia's UN ambassador on climate, Penny Wensley, is opposing targets in the final mandate.

"Those countries, such as Australia and the US, with bad greenhouse emission records, either in total or on a per capita basis, and those with bad emission outlooks, seem to be the most reluctant to agree to tighter measures", said Krockenberger. "Australia, which seems to be aligning itself with the US in a move to proceed only with the weakest possible mandate, is becoming increasingly isolated within the developed countries."

Many of the underdeveloped countries, and some developed ones, such as Germany, however, seem to be more sympathetic to the Alliance of Small Island States' (AOSIS) protocol, the only framework for reducing emissions by the year 2005 on the table at Berlin, said Krockenberger. The OPEC countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, are opposing all reduction targets.

Foreign minister Senator Gareth Evans made it clear before the conference began that any move that would prejudice Australia's "own economic trade and foreign policy interests" would be resisted.

This position is reflected in the federal government's $63 million "Greenhouse 21C" package, released on March 29. It admits that Australia will not meet the international target, set at the 1992 United Nations conference, of stabilising greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000.

Trying to defend the government's position, environment minister John Faulkner told ABC TV that only a handful of countries had reached their targets, and that the new package would bring Australia to within 3% of the original target. "If it had been business as usual", he said, "we would have missed the target by 14%".

Voluntary restraints

The peak environmental bodies and the WA Greens have criticised the package, arguing that voluntary agreements with industry, a central thrust of the plan, will make it useless. The plan has been well received by the Australian Mining Industry Council, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Electricity Supply Association of Australia and the National Farmers Federation.

"Far too little, far too late", was the WA Green senators' response. Commenting on Australia's role in the Berlin conference, Christabel Chamarette said, "The government is not arguing internationally for a strong protocol to reduce emissions; it is instead arguing to soften requirements and shift more of the burden to the developing world. It is arguing to promote OECD exports to developing countries as a greenhouse package, asking them to sacrifice their economy for ours."

Greenpeace described Greenhouse 21C as a "recipe for failure". Climate campaigner Keith Tarlo said that the package leaves the federal government with "absolutely no credibility" at the Berlin conference. "Australia is one of the world's largest per capita greenhouse polluters and is offering unenforceable industry agreements to provide 75% of its greenhouse gas reductions.

"Greenhouse 21C is appropriately named because it will be the 21st century before the government does anything to actually reduce rather than talk about greenhouse gas reduction."

Tarlo said the majority of the policies will actually delay action: these include a white paper on sustainable energy policy, a database on land clearing, voluntary targets for fuel efficiency levels and a minuscule $2.4 million pilot project for public transport.

Australia's inaction falls into line behind the US, which has stated that it will reject all attempts to get the main greenhouse gas-emitting nations, the G7 countries, to take the lead.

Led by Trinidad and Tobago, AOSIS — countries which stand to face major catastrophes if sea levels rise as predicted — has been campaigning for the rich nations to agree to cut their greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2005. The US has flatly refused, as well as rejecting a British government proposal for industrialised countries to cut emissions by 10% by 2010. Prior to the Berlin conference, the US, together with Australia, scuttled a German push for tougher reduction targets.

The Clinton administration admits that voluntary agreements with industry will fall well short of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. (This is the goal of the 1992 Framework Convention for Climate Change in Rio; of the 167 signatories, only four countries are on target.

Rather than reduce its own emissions, the US is pushing for Third World countries — which contribute much less per capita of global greenhouse gas emissions and are least able to afford the cleaner technologies — to be included in new reduction targets. China, India and Malaysia argue that the industrialised nations should take the lead in the reduction of greenhouse gases.

Warming

Since carbon dioxide emissions were first linked to enhanced global warming in the 1980s, there have been ongoing attempts by the energy industries of the rich nations to cast doubt on the causal relationship between carbon dioxide levels and global warming. There is still no general scientific agreement on the extent of global warming. But as Chris Flavin, the vice-president of the US-based World Watch Institute, recently put it: "The majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is happening and that it threatens real disruption to society. The challenge is to act even without a full degree of certainty."

In Australia's greenhouse strategy: can the future be rescued?, co-authored by Dr George Wilkenfeld, Dr Clive Hamilton and Dr Hugh Saddler, several years of intensive scientific research by the CSIRO confirm that "general global warming is likely to occur" and that "climatic trends in recent years have provided some evidence that it may already be occurring".

According to geophysicist Charles Ebert of the State University of New York at Buffalo, interviewed in the April 4 Bulletin about the Larsen ice shelf, if winds melt even a tenth of the Antarctic's ice, sea levels worldwide would rise 3.5 to 9 metres.

"The likely rate of global warming is projected to approach 0.3 degrees celsius per decade, which may be 10 to 100 times the rate ecosystems have experienced in the last few million years, and far higher than the rate of warming at the end of the last glacial period, about 10,000 years ago", state the CSIRO co-authors. They argue that the costs of inaction will be far greater than doing something now.

The leaders of the energy industries have steadfastly resisted the push for targets, and the government has complied. Electricity production, which is still largely based on coal-burning, accounts for about 25% of Australia's greenhouse emissions.

Coal is also Australia's largest export, worth about $8 billion a year. Australia accounts for a third of the world coal trade, and coal accounts for 12% of the value of Australia's commodity exports. In order to protect its investments, the electricity industry argues that the way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is to introduce new technology, not move to more sustainable and less polluting energy. This position is echoed by the federal government, which, in Greenhouse 21C, allocated $25 million to promote "clean coal" technology in India.

According to Tarlo, "clean", a euphemism for low sulphur content, is irrelevant to greenhouse pollution. "If Australia was serious about wanting to assist India to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, it would provide energy efficiency or solar technologies or, if fossil fuels had to be used, a co-generation gas plant, which has less than one third of the greenhouse gas emissions of a coal-fired power station."

Not serious

Senator Chamarette questioned the seriousness of measures to protect forests and prevent vegetation clearance, while, at the same time, the federal government has pushed ahead with the decision to increase woodchip licences this year by 20%.

Greenpeace and ACF point to United Nations and International Energy Agency data which show that Australia's energy-related emissions are projected to grow by 16% between 1990 and 2000 — four times the projected growth rate for OECD countries and considerably greater than the rates projected for Canada and the US. They and say that this is unacceptable, especially in the light of the $40 billion subsidy that governments have provided the industry over the last few decades.

These figures are backed up by a new report from the Bureau of Transport and Communications Economics, which notes that the projected growth in total greenhouse emissions for domestic transport is expected to be about 1.2% a year between 1993 and 2015, an overall increase of about one third. It states that domestic and international transport were responsible for about 80 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 1993, with the road transport sector accounting for close to 80% of this.

Federal and state cuts to public transport budgets and the encouragement of private freight companies at the expense of the public rail system show how difficult it will be to get private industry to voluntarily commit to targets.

Neither have state and territory governments, which have influence over the decisions of publicly owned energy utilities, shown much concern with lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Over the past two years of the National Greenhouse Response Strategy:

  • the WA government endorsed a decision by its predecessor to build a coal-fired power station at Collie, even though an independent inquiry found that natural gas, of which WA has plentiful supplies, is the cheapest option;

  • the NSW government has subsidised the extension of the electricity grid into the sparsely populated north-west of the state, despite the fact that this is a prime area for cheaper, renewable energy-based systems;

  • the Victorian government has cancelled an undertaking to purchase energy from a proposed 10 megawatt wind farm at Toora, leading to the cancellation of the project.

Another concern is the suggestion contained in a new report, Greenhouse Gas Abatement and Burden Sharing, by the federal government's Bureau of Industry Economics, that consideration be given to support the trade of international greenhouse emission credits. It claims that the costs of reducing emissions would be halved with benefits also flowing to other developed countries.

In essence, this sort of system would allow developing countries with little industry to sell the "right" to pollute to industrialised countries. This is the sort of "clean-up" policy currently in use in the US; it gives polluting industries the right to pollute, albeit for a price. While it is understood that the federal government isn't keen on this, sections of industry are sure to push for such a "solution".

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