Australia undermines Earth Summit

September 4, 2002


The Australian government is attracting international condemnation for playing a spoiling role at the United Nations-organised World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

The Australian delegation of 50 people is led by environment minister David Kemp. The delegation is primarily comprised of bureaucrats and representatives of business groups such as the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Minerals Council of Australia and BHP Billiton.

The composition of the delegation is clearly reflected in the role it is playing at the summit. Mark Wakeham, from the Environment Centre of the Northern Territory and Friends of the Earth Australia, said in an August 29 statement from Johannesburg: "Communities from around the world suffering the impacts of destructive mining projects will take little comfort from the official outcomes of the Earth Summit...

"For villagers downstream of Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea, victims of blood diamonds in Angola or Aboriginal landowners fighting Rio Tinto's attempts to develop the Jabiluka uranium mine in Kakadu National Park, the likely outcome will be extremely disappointing...

"With Rio Tinto on the British government delegation, BHP Billiton on the Australian government delegation and Anglo-American a major sponsor of the summit, three of the largest mining houses in the world are in the perfect position to ensure that the summit does not effect 'business as usual'."

Kemp said Australia's priorities at Johannesburg are to "promote the benefits of globalisation and good national governance" and "highlight the contribution of trade liberalisation to sustainable development".

The argument that global trade liberalisation can promote sustainable development is based on the neo-liberal idea that environmental protection will be achieved reducing government regulation of corporate profit-making. If that were true, those countries in which neo-liberal "free market" policies have been most vigorously pursued by governments over the last two decades should have the best environmental protection records.

But the opposite is true. For example, the United States is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and Australia is the largest per capita greenhouse emitter.

Kemp's bizarre logic is also undermined by a report prepared by Peter Christoff from Melbourne University, released the week before the Earth Summit. The report found that Australia's environment is deteriorating on numerous fronts: biodiversity preservation, land clearance, land degradation, the health of inland waters, and greenhouse gas emissions. (An equivalent government report, the Australian Assessment Report, tried to put a positive spin on the deterioration with its statement that the government was "confident that the rates of environmental degradation are now falling".)

Another of Australia's priorities at Johannesburg, according to Kemp, is to promote the benefits of "good national governance". This term is being used in different senses in Johannesburg. It sits alongside a thousand other meaningless, feel-good phrases with which no-one could disagree.

The phrase also has a more sinister imputation, being used as code to refer to corruption in Third World countries and implying that those countries are responsible for their own environmental and social problems. That slander ignores the substantial contribution of Western corporations and governments to corruption and to environmental and social problems in Third World countries.

Another priority of the Australian delegation at the Earth Summit, Kemp said, is to "work with others in voluntary partnerships to implement international sustainable development activities". One of the voluntary partnerships established at Johannesburg is between the Australian government and the International Atomic Energy Agency to develop indicators for sustainable energy development. Australia's uranium mining companies will of course be delighted at the opportunity to talk up the greenhouse-friendly credentials of nuclear power plants (and to talk down the environmental impacts of the spent nuclear fuel they produce).

At the Earth Summit, the US-led JUSCANZ coalition — which includes Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — has been leading the opposition to clear targets and timetables for dealing with environmental and social problems.

Greenhouse gangsters

In an August 21 media release, Kemp and industry minister Ian Macfarlane announced that their roundtable discussions with corporate greenhouse polluters would be followed by further, drawn-out consultations with industry.

The ministers said that "industry views would be further developed over the next nine months, with a view to delivering a report to government in May 2003". The report will inform another government-industry roundtable meeting in April or May 2003 "to consolidate the views of the working groups". Who knows, one day they might even get around to actually doing something to reduce greenhouse emissions!

Not surprisingly, corporate polluters at the August 21 conference "welcomed the government's commitment to a broad consultation process to develop the long-term strategy for cutting greenhouse emissions".

Having packed their bags and flown to Johannesburg, Kemp and the corporate representatives are pushing the same line at the Earth Summit. Australia is pushing to have any reference to the Kyoto Protocol dropped from the summit's statement on climate change.

The Australian government was given the responsibility of writing the draft statement on climate change being debated at Johannesburg. This was "like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse", according to the Australian Conservation Foundation's Don Henry.

Having worked tirelessly to weaken the Kyoto Protocol and to riddle it with loopholes, Kemp now complains that the treaty is weak and riddled with loopholes. He told ABC television on August 18 that Australia would not ratify the treaty because it went only "1%" of the way towards reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

Corporate polluters, who also worked tirelessly to gut the Kyoto Protocol, now want credit for supporting the new-look "Kyoto Lite" treaty. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development staged a press conference with Greenpeace International to declare its support for the treaty on August 29. Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, former chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell and now head of Business Action for Sustainable Development (a corporate lobby group established specifically for the purpose of undermining the Earth Summit), has also voiced support for Kyoto Lite.

The Australian government has strongly pushed voluntary programs to reduce greenhouse emissions. However, Kemp's claim that these programs are effective and have placed Australia within striking distance of meeting its Kyoto target (an 8% increase in emissions from 1990 to 2008-2012) have been undermined by a manager from the government's Australian Greenhouse Office (AGO).

Responding to Kemp's claim that Australia is becoming more efficient, with a predicted 43% improvement from 1990 to 2012 in emissions per dollar of GDP, the AGO manager was quoted in the August 30 Melbourne Age as saying this "improvement" reflected coincidental GDP growth in sectors such as the service industry. Fossil fuel emissions rose by 17.7-20.6% between 1990 and 2000, and there is no sign of that growth slowing.

Likewise, to the extent that greenhouse emissions are below a business-as-usual scenario in Australia, only part of this reduction is due to the government's programs (although the government takes credit for all of it). Other reductions were due to improved technologies in industry, the AGO manager said, and in any case the reductions claimed by companies had not been confirmed.

The AGO manager also complained about the industry consultation process initiated by the government, saying that the AGO had spent the past three years carrying out this work and that Kemp is wasting more precious time.

Tuvalu finance minister Bikenibeu Paeniu was quoted in an August 30 Reuters report saying that the Pacific island state is enlisting support from other vulnerable nations for a planned lawsuit against the US and Australia because of their contributions to global warming and their refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. "In the corridors in this conference there are a number of people who have indicated support", Paeniu said. "Apart from Pacific islands there are some from the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean."

A document prepared for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and leaked during the first week of the Earth Summit, says that OECD countries subsidise the emission of global warming gases by US$57 billion (A$105 billion), almost the same amount the report estimates it would cost to meet international targets.

"Through the provision of [fossil fuel] subsidies", the report states, "governments are effectively subsidising pollution and global warming as more than 60 per cent of all subsidies flow to oil, coal and gas."

European posturing

Greens Senator Bob Brown was excluded from the official Australian delegation but is in Johannesburg nonetheless. Brown described the Australian delegation as being at the "back of the pack", citing the government's position on climate change and land clearing.

"The Europeans are going to come and be able to talk about new laws on recycling, on pollution control, on eco taxes, and spending on technological innovation, which makes Australia look very shallow by comparison", Brown was reported as saying in the August 28 Sydney Morning Herald.

However, the European Union's negotiating positions have been criticised by a larger-than-usual proportion of environmentalists and non-governmental organisations at the Earth Summit. Growing recognition of and opposition to EU posturing (an inch to the left of the US) and greenwashing is one of the positives to come out of the Earth Summit.

Walden Bello, in a paper published in the September issue of the British publication Red Pepper, writes: "Today, the Johannesburg Summit is stillborn, killed over a year before it was held by George W. Bush's decision to withdraw the world's prime capitalist power from being party to the Kyoto climate change protocol. This is capitalism stripped of its liberal face, capitalism that reveals its essential nature as an enemy of nature.

"The Japanese and European elites pretend to be upset, but what they are most upset about is the Americans' frank acknowledgment of the basic dynamic of the system of production they all share: that its continuing expansion must be achieved via an accelerated consumption and toxification of nature... Johannesburg will be a mixture of corporate greenwashing, American bullying, European holier-than-thou posturing, third world leaders begging for aid in return for more pro-corporate liberalisation, and the World Trade Organisation hijacking the environment in the service of free trade. It is one more UN conference bound for ignominious failure."

The EU's refusal to support a binding code of corporate accountability has been attacked by Friends of the Earth International at the Earth Summit. "On many key issues, the EU is part of the problem rather than the solution", said Daniel Mittler from FoE.

The EU has also failed to support the demand that global environmental agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, must not be undermined by the World Trade Organisation. FoE Europe condemned EU leaders for settling for a token increase in global targets for renewable energy production and for failing to specify what counts as renewable.

From Green Left Weekly, September 4, 2002.
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