By Pip Hinman
Conservationists have condemned the federal government for failing to come up with a concrete greenhouse gas reduction strategy before an international conference on climate change in Berlin beginning on March 27.
Recent studies by the Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace indicate that Australia is the worst per capita greenhouse gas emitter of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development countries. Fossil fuel-related carbon dioxide emissions are projected to grow in Australia at a faster rate in this decade than for any other industrialised country.
According to ACF spokesperson Peter Kinrade, data released by the United Nations and International Energy Agency "dispels once and for all the myth created by sections of industry and government that Australia's performance on greenhouse has been satisfactory".
Greenpeace and ACF have been lobbying the federal government to introduce "a strong and comprehensive new package of greenhouse measures".
These include the controversial carbon tax and a "sustainable energy authority", which, they argue, would speed up the transition to cleaner energy. They have also called for a major injection of funds for renewable energy and public transport.
In addition the ACF has called on the federal government to give full support to the draft protocol to be presented by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which calls on industrialised countries to commit themselves to binding emission reduction targets.
ACF and Greenpeace have sharply criticised the government's "voluntary agreements" on greenhouse gas reduction targets, saying that they are unenforceable and therefore useless. The evidence since 1988 — when the "Toronto target" to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 20% below 1988 levels by 2005 was set — bears this out.
Since the late 1980s, the federal government has been party to a succession of conventions, treaties, agreements and "calls for action". The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established in 1988 under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program, led to the signing, by 24 nations including Australia, of the 1989 Declaration of the Hague, which recognised the global significance of climate change.
In mid-1989, the NSW and Victorian governments readopted the 1988 Toronto target as "an interim objective for planning purposes". That same year the federal government set up a national climate change program which included the establishment of the National Greenhouse Advisory Committee of scientific advisers and a prime ministerial working group to assess what targets were achievable.
In 1990 the federal government also adopted an "interim planning target" which aimed to stabilise emissions of greenhouse gases at 1988 levels by the year 2000 and reduce them by 20% by 2005. However, this target was subject to a caveat that "the government would not proceed with measures which have net adverse economic impacts nationally or on Australia's trade competitiveness in the absence of similar action by other major greenhouse gas producing countries".
At the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Australia signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC). This came into effect on March 21, 1994, by which time 167 nations had signed. The convention designated 2000 as the year by which signatories would attempt to return greenhouse gas emissions to their 1990 levels. The FCCC did not make these targets binding however, and the Berlin conference this week, the first meeting of the FCCC parties, was supposed to do that. Only four of the signatories have met the stabilisation targets.
It seems that, before the signatories have even met, attempts at firming up definite targets have been scuttled. According to the March 21 Financial Review, a preliminary meeting in Bonn called by the German government to gather support for a tougher international stand on greenhouse gas reduction was fruitless. Germany has had a national greenhouse gas reduction target in place for the last five years and has been pushing for reductions of between 25-30% by 2005.
Last week, after pressure from both industry and conservation sectors, federal cabinet took a stand against supporting any new measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The powerful coal industry, responsible for about 25% of Australia's greenhouse emissions, has waged a concerted campaign against any firm targets.