BY JIM GREEN
Federal environment minister David Kemp announced on February 27 the establishment of a Climate Action Partnership between Australia and the United States. The partnership is designed to protect the interests of oil, gas and coal companies in both countries and to further undermine international moves towards the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
The partnership will involve the US departments of state, commerce and energy, the US Environmental Protection Agency, their Australian counterparts, as well as research bodies and industry. It will focus on issues such as emissions measurement and accounting, climate change science, stationary energy technology, land management and engagement with business to create "economically efficient" climate change solutions.
It signals Canberra's willingness to continue to work with the administration of US President George Bush to undermine the Kyoto Protocol and climate change abatement generally.
On February 14, Bush announced a plan to reduce "greenhouse gas emission intensity" — the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to economic output — by 18% by 2012.
Reductions in emission intensity should not be confused with actual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which are expected to rise by about 12% in the US over the coming decade. According to analyses by Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, emissions under the Bush plan will grow to 36% percent more than 1990 levels by 2010; this compares with the target of a 7% reduction over the same period agreed to by the US under the Kyoto process.
At best, the US plan will result in a small decline in emissions compared to business-as-usual projections. Bush compared his plan to the "unreasonable, infeasible" Kyoto target. The US plan looks still more tepid when compared to the estimated 60-80% reductions required to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.
Bush's plan relies heavily on incentives to encourage industry to voluntarily limit emissions. It includes tax credits, funding for research into new technologies and a voluntary register of corporate greenhouse gas emissions (with strong hints that registered emission reductions would attract credits for use in any future emissions trading program).
What the Bush plan pointedly fails to do is to mandate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, contrary to a pledge he made during the 2000 presidential race.
The carrots include US$4.6 billion over the next five years in tax credits for various projects including renewable energy sources and cleaner cars.
As for the "sticks", if Bush's voluntary measures are deemed to have failed 10 years hence, corporate polluters are "threatened" with even more financial incentives, market-based programs (a carbon trading system) and yet more "voluntary measures".
Previous voluntary greenhouse targets, including the United Nations target of returning to 1990 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2000, have not been met by the US. As Philip Clapp, president of US National Environmental Trust, noted, "The president's global warming proposal appears to be another faith-based initiative... There's no reason to believe polluters are suddenly going to see the light".
The partnership announced by Kemp on February 27 is the latest episode in the collusion between Washington and Canberra to protect corporate greenhouse gangsters.
In 1997, both governments tried to kill the Kyoto Protocol before it was even born, and almost succeeded. In subsequent years, they made every effort to gut the treaty.
It was revealed in September 1998 that the Australian cabinet had secretly decided not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol unless the US did so.
After Bush announced the US withdrawal from the Kyoto process in March last year, the Australian government supported the US, though it did not pull out. The Australian delegation did all it could at the July 2001 UN greenhouse gas reduction conference in Germany to further gut the Kyoto Protocol and to stall decisions, arguing that rules should not be finalised for fear of "closing the door" on the US. A leaked cable from the US state department was circulating that stated that the US rejects the Kyoto Protocol "under any circumstances".
Needless to say, the US greenhouse plan announced on February 14 was warmly welcomed in Canberra, with Kemp and foreign minister Alexander Downer describing it as a "major initiative".
While wavering countries such as Canada and Japan have not committed to ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, the US plan is not regarded as a plausible alternative despite the Australian government's best efforts to talk it up.
The treaty will "enter into force" when ratified by at least 55 countries, even without US and Australian ratification. But it might not survive any further setbacks.
With its new partnership with the US, it seems less likely that the Australian government will ratify the Kyoto Protocol. On the other hand, the treaty has been so watered-down that it poses little threat to Australia's corporate greenhouse polluters.
Then-environment minister Robert Hill admitted on July 25, immediately after the Kyoto Protocol had been further weakened at the UN conference in Germany, that "it could well be possible to achieve our target with the measures we now have in place".
The Australian government is juggling competing interests. More than 80% of Australians support ratification — even without the US — according to an April 2001 survey commissioned by Greenpeace.
A relatively weak, but growing, corporate sector with interests in renewable energy sources is pushing for ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. However, the fossil fuel sector has the deepest pockets.
Kemp predicted a positive response to the US-Australian partnership from industry and he was not disappointed — at least not by the major fossil fuel producers and users.
Executive director of the Australian Aluminium Council Ron Knapp, said, "The issue in all of this has always been Australia being prepared to question and look at what are the best alternatives and not rushing into ratification [of the Kyoto Protocol]. Here is an opportunity to do just that."
Knapp and other greenhouse gas polluters have a big stake in the status quo. The aluminium smelting industry in Australia accounts for 6.5% of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions. A report released in February by Australia Institute research fellow Hal Turton found that the aluminium smelting industry:
- enjoys subsidies of at least $210 million a year, and probably more than $250 million, from reduced electricity charges;
- receives an annual "environmental subsidy" of about $270 million because it does not pay for its greenhouse gas emissions;
- produces 2.5 times the world average of greenhouse gases per tonne of aluminium produced; and
- the subsidies to aluminium smelting amount to more than $40,000 for every job, and far more jobs would be created by subsidising renewable energy sources.
From Green Left Weekly, March 6, 2002.
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