International greenhouse conference gets serious about procrastination

Issue 

By Jim Green

Accomplishing as little as possible was the aim of some participants — including the United States and Australian governments — at the fifth conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, Germany, from October 25 to November 5. They came away very pleased with themselves.

The conference was meant to strengthen measures to reduce greenhouse emissions. However, according to an October 30 bulletin from the United Nations' International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), "Many conference participants expressed a sense of frustration at the lack of progress on critical issues. Exasperated delegates remarked that as long as some countries are invested in the status quo and 'deliberately stall' the process ... the emerging pattern of mounting delays would make the vision of a ratified Kyoto Protocol by the year 2002 unachievable."

The November 3 IISD bulletin said that some conference delegates were discussing avenues for official action to reprimand or exclude delegates who appeared to be attending sessions with the sole purpose of delaying or undermining agreement.

The World Wide Fund for Nature on November 4 accused the US, Canadian, Australian and Japanese governments of duplicity in Bonn: a parade of ministers promised action to reduce emissions but bureaucrats worked feverishly behind the scenes to widen loopholes in draft agreements.

The recurring theme in negotiations over climate change, coming from the advanced capitalist countries in particular, is the "need" to avoid any change that will impact on "economic growth" (i.e., business interests). Thus the debate has largely been reduced to negotiation over "flexibility mechanisms", strategies which will enable advanced capitalist countries to meet their Kyoto targets without reducing their emissions by the amounts agreed to at Kyoto.

Flexibility mechanisms include international emissions trading and a "clean development mechanism" which involves developed countries building greenhouse-friendly infrastructure in underdeveloped countries and thereby obtaining credit for the resulting greenhouse gas reductions.

The scope of greenhouse-friendly technologies is open for debate. The nuclear lobby had an electronic counter set up at the Bonn conference centre which displayed the accumulating total of carbon saved by nuclear power production around the world during the conference period. Nuclear vendors are salivating at the prospect of finally cracking some Third World markets; if this can be accomplished under the unlikely pretence of protecting the environment, so much the better.

Compliance

According to the IISD, before the conference a joint working group was charged with the challenging task of preparing a "non-paper" on compliance issues, including sanctions for countries failing to meet their targets.

A real paper on compliance issues was also produced, much to the annoyance of an Australian delegate who argued against a modest proposal to use it as a "basis for consideration" on the conference floor. It is not known whether Australian delegates favoured consideration of the non-paper.

The Australian delegation argued that countries should be able to choose from a menu of consequences in the event of non-compliance. It also argued against strong sanctions, preferring "facilitation" for countries failing to meet their targets.

Australia, Japan and the US argued against the use of the terms "binding consequences" or "consequences" in relation to non-compliant nations, suggesting that the term "outcome" would better reflect the possible use of facilitative measures. In relation to strategies to reduce greenhouse emissions, an Australian delegate argued for replacing the term "best practice" with "good practice".

So, good practice for non-compliant countries will be to choose from a menu of facilitative measures to improve outcomes.

Compliance issues were not resolved at Bonn.

Australia's reputation

Australia established a reputation as a climate change recalcitrant at the 1997 Kyoto conference, when the federal Coalition government insisted on a far more generous target than other developed countries accepted.

That reputation has been reinforced by research from the Australia Institute which found that Australia has overtaken the US as the world's worst greenhouse gas polluter on a per capita basis. Australia emits 25% per capita more carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, than the US and more than double that of most European Union countries, according to the institute.

One of the reasons for the high emissions in Australia is extensive land clearing. According to the October 30 Sydney Morning Herald, about 1 million hectares of native bush, containing about 200 million trees, were cleared between 1995 and 1997 in Queensland alone.

Clearing is now being accelerated in Queensland by farmers anxious to avoid being forced to limit land clearing by government regulations. The October 30 Sydney Morning Herald reported that contractors in southern Queensland have been clearing land around the clock, using floodlights at night.

The federal government has warned of funding cuts if the Queensland government fails to halt the excessive land clearing. The Queensland government is planning measures to restrict land clearing, but these may not be in place for several months. If and when they are introduced, the restrictions will "satisfy all parties", according to Queensland's environment minister.

The National Party state government in 1997 signed an agreement with the federal government which required as many trees to be planted as are cut down by June 2001 under the National Heritage Trust plan. The National Party now opposes new controls as an affront to the sacrosanctity of private property. Larry Acton, president of Queensland's peak farmers' group, said that a $100 million package may be acceptable to compensate for restrictions on land clearing.

Professor Harry Recher from Perth's Edith Cowan University described the escalation of land clearing as a "national disgrace, bordering on the criminal". Apart from the implications for greenhouse gas emissions, land clearing will worsen salinity problems, species loss and loss of biodiversity. Costs associated with land degradation in Australia run to $1 billion each year in lost production and remedy attempts, according to the CSIRO.

Ironically, land clearing is doing little to improve agricultural productivity in Queensland, according to a study by resource economist Dr John Rolfe, partly because much of the land being cleared is of poor quality.