Australia rains on greenhouse talks

August 1, 2001



Australian government delegates played spoiler at the United Nations climate change conference, held in Bonn, Germany from July 16-23, where delegates from 180 countries met to finalise details on the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

At the 1997 Kyoto conference, 38 industrialised countries agreed to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions averaging 5.2% between 1990 and 2008-2012. But many details were left unresolved. Only one of the 38 countries (Romania) has ratified the protocol to date, and the United States pulled out of the process in March.

The Bonn conference came to an uneasy consensus on the details governing the protocol — but the treaty has been gutted in the process. Even before the Bonn conference, the protocol was called "astonishingly unambitious" by the July 9 London Times while an editorial in the July 26 Australian said, "The emission targets agreed to at Kyoto in 1997 have been softened to the point where their previously negligible impact all but disappears".

Environmental analyst Clive Hamilton told ABC radio on July 25 that cuts of more than 70% are required to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, but the watered-down Kyoto Protocol requires cuts averaging just 1-2%.

Other analysts, such as Bill Hare from Greenpeace International, suggest that it will be possible to increase emissions while still meeting the Kyoto targets — certainly that is the case for Australia, given that the target for Australia was an 8% increase in emissions from 1990 to 2008-2012.

The Bonn agreement contains generous provisions for the use of "carbon sink" activities — such as increased forest plantations or reduced land clearing — as alternatives to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Sink activities represent a temporary fix at best, and the potential for creative accounting is enormous. Moreover, while plantations and reduced land clearing may have environmental advantages over and above their implications for climate change, other outcomes have already been demonstrated, such as replacing old-growth forests, wetlands and savannas with monoculture plantations.

The land-use loopholes are of particular significance to Australia. Despite Australia's status as the world's largest greenhouse gas-emitting country on a per capita basis, it may be possible for Australia to meet its Kyoto target with no further effort to reduce emissions — and there might even be some "hot air" left over to sell on an international carbon trading market.

Australian environment minister Robert Hill said on July 25: "The first very rough assessments indicate it could well be possible to achieve our target with the measures we now have in place."

Other alternatives to domestic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions are also allowed under the Bonn agreement, including emissions trading and funding emissions-cutting projects in developing and former socialist bloc countries.

Proposals to allow the accrual of carbon credits by subsidising nuclear power plants, supported by Australia and some of the major nuclear vendor countries, were rejected at Bonn — but sink loopholes were expanded as part of this horse-trading.

Compliance and penalty issues were almost completely stripped of substance at Bonn. The final deal only came about after Australia, Japan and Russia succeeded in extracting the protocol's "teeth": its legally binding consequences for failing to meet emission reduction targets.

The Australian government has long argued that non-compliant countries should be able to choose from a menu of "facilitative measures" to improve outcomes, rather than face binding penalties.

Prize recruit

The Kyoto Protocol will only "enter into force" if ratified by at least 55 countries, including industrialised countries accounting for 55% of the greenhouse emissions of those countries in 1990. This outcome was made much less likely when the US government announced in March that it will not ratify the treaty — the US accounts for about 36% of emissions from industrialised countries, and about 25% of global emissions.

Canberra is Washington's "prize recruit" to the anti-Kyoto cause. In May, Hill was advocating cancellation of the Bonn conference altogether as a result of the US pulling out of the Kyoto process.

That suggestion received little support, so the Australian delegation did all it could to gut the Kyoto Protocol in Bonn and to stall decisions, on the premise that rules should not be finalised for fear of "locking out" or "closing the door on" the US.

The Australian government's position remains that it will not ratify without the US and without developing countries accepting commitments to reduce emissions.

On July 23, Hill told a plenary session of the Bonn conference, "We have achieved further steps towards ratification by settling the rules on the issue of ratification itself. There's obviously a broad range of issues to take into account — certainly, in view of the United States' withdrawal, the issue of economic competitiveness with the United States must be considered."

Washington has been trying to kill the Kyoto Protocol in favour of voluntary, "technology-oriented" and "market-friendly" alternatives.

One tactic being discussed in corporate boardrooms around the world, and in Canberra, Washington and elsewhere, is to develop a plan still weaker than the Kyoto Protocol and to sell it in the lead-up to the next round of United Nations-sponsored talks, scheduled for Marrakesh, Morocco, in October and November.

Given that "voluntary", "technology-oriented" and "market-friendly" are reasonably accurate descriptions of the new-look, toothless Kyoto Protocol, a rethink may be in train. In the days following the Bonn conference, Washington bureaucrats appeared to be backing away from suggestions that a counter-plan was under development, according to an editorial in the July 26 Washington Post.

Bonner Cohen, from the Lexington Institute in the US, said in an Earth Times News Service opinion piece on July 25 that, "The rules adopted in Bonn contain no ... enforcement mechanism ... Small wonder that the US delegation, representing a nation which has rejected the Kyoto Protocol, chose not to interfere with the deal struck in Bonn. The Americans have nothing to fear."

Industry spin

Australian corporate lobbyists at the Bonn conference included representatives of the Australian Aluminium Council, the Coal Association, the Minerals Council and the Business Council of Australia.

In a July 23 column in the Australian Financial Review, the Aluminium Council's representative in Bonn, John Hannagan, put the case for trickle-down economics with a green gloss, arguing that the Kyoto Protocol "puts at risk the essential element required to solve climate issues and poverty — strong world economic growth."

Hannagan juxtaposed the needs of people, "especially poor people", against the "perceived need to ameliorate climate change" and argued that the needs of poor people are immediate and ongoing while addressing climate change "is a long-term process — maybe 100 or more years".

"It's better to build first the economic platform before moving forward on the other front", Hannagan asserted. "It's why the World Trade Organisation, Davos, G8 and other similar forums are so vital. It's also why greens and other anti-globalisation demonstrators are actually working against the people they claim to represent."

Hannagan claimed that the "virtually stagnant protest vote" in the Aston by-election may be "a reflection of a deep-seated understanding" of environmental and trade issues and "a turning point towards a more thoughtful politics in Australia".

"If so", Hannagan continued, "Australia's actions at the climate change talks in Bonn represent not only a principled stand but one that reflects the will of the Australian people — without a rock thrown or a body bag required."

There is no mention in Hannagan's rant of the Newspoll survey commissioned by Greenpeace in April which found that 80.4% of respondents were in favour of Australia ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, with or without US ratification. Nor did Hannagan mention the subsidies enjoyed by the aluminium industry in Australia, running to hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Nor did Hannagan mention plans for a new aluminium smelter in Queensland — plans which undermine industry rhetoric about industries quitting Australia because of costs imposed by greenhouse abatement measures. Nor did he mention the role of corporate polluters in dictating the "principled stand" of the Howard government at the Bonn conference.

If the Australian public won't protect corporate profits in the aluminium industry, perhaps the World Trade Organisation can help.

This was suggested by the Aluminium Council's executive director David Coutts in a July 23 media release. Coutts complained about "restrictions" placed on "flexibility mechanisms" (the Kyoto euphemism for loopholes) at the Bonn conference: "Some of the more important restrictions include taking away the rights of countries to trade freely with each other in emission credits, something that may eventually prove a concern to the WTO".

Revolving door

John Hannagan's career and connections provide a window into the networks linking corporations (and their peak bodies, front groups and "think tanks"), the major political parties and government bureaucracies, the media, and the PR/consultancy industry — and how these groups have conspired to suppress effective international action to stop climate change.

For 10 years Hannagan was spinning for the aluminium industry as corporate affairs manager for Alcoa Australia. In 1997, he was lobbying in Kyoto as a representative of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network — a "who's who" of Australian corporate polluters. In 1999, Hannagan was spinning for the Aluminium Council.

Hannagan is also a partner in Hannagan Bushnell, a "public affairs, government and investor relations consultancy". Hannagan Bushnell's clients have included the federal government (on the development of an "Energy Efficiency Best Practice Program"), Alcoa Australia, Ok Tedi Mining, BHP Minerals, the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, and North Limited (on the Jabiluka uranium mine among other projects).

Noel Bushnell used to hold a "senior position" at the Australian Financial Review — a possible explanation for the publication of Hannagan's disingenuous propaganda in the July 23 edition of the paper.

Tony Staley, former minister in the Fraser government and former federal president of the Liberal Party, and Bob Hogg, former Labor government minister and former national secretary of the ALP, are "Senior Counsellors" to Hannagan Bushnell.

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