Astonishingly, when the government announced it would delay starting the plan, but with a new target of 25% emissions reductions, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Climate Institute and WWF announced their support of the plan. Australian author and climate change analyst Guy Pearse says they were “sucker punched by a government which has no intention of cutting emissions by anything like that magnitude, let alone cutting them in Australia.”
In December 2007, when Australia ratified the Kyoto Protocol the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, said that “This is the first official act of the new Australian Government, demonstrating my Government’s commitment to tackling climate change.” During 2008, Australia became a firm supporter of REDD, setting up partnerships with Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, the Clinton Climate Initiative and supporting the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and Forest Investment Program.
Australia is one of most enthusiastic promoters of market mechanisms to finance REDD. In a March 2009 submission to the UNFCCC, Australia sets out a proposal for a forest carbon market mechanism, which “suggests a comprehensive approach to the inclusion of emissions from the forest sector in developing countries in the post 2012 agreement.” Australia has set up a $200 million International Forest Carbon Initiative, part of which involves “Supporting international efforts to develop market-based approaches to REDD.”
But this promotion of forest carbon trading has little to do with protecting forests and everything to do with evading emissions reductions in Australia.
Australia is one of the world’s largest per capita greenhouse polluters. About 80 per cent of electricity in Australia is from coal-fired power stations. It is also the world’s largest exporter of coal. At the same time, Australia is one of the countries that will be worst hit by the impacts of climate change. The government funded Human Rights Commission in its annual Native Title Report noted that climate change would force Aborigines off their traditional lands, resulting in “cultural genocide“. Scientists have described Australia as the country to look at to see what global warming will look like: “prolonged drought and deadly bush fires in the south, monsoon flooding and mosquito-borne fevers in the north, widespread wildlife decline, economic collapse in agriculture and killer heat waves,” all of which is happening now.
Yet Australia plans to increase the amount of coal extracted in and exported from Australia. The Rudd government’s carbon pollution reduction scheme not only has targets so low as to be meaningless, on 4 May 2009 it postponed the start of its emissions trading scheme until mid-2011.
Just before the emissions trading scheme was postponed, the architect of the plan, Ross Garnaut, described it as “weak, maybe worthless“, saying that he was worried that too many free permits would be handed out to industry. The Rudd government still plans to push emissions trading legislation through parliament this year, before the UN Climate Change negotiations in Copenhagen. The revised plan would provide even more support to industry. The 2020 emissions target would be somewhere between 5 and 25 per cent below 2000 levels. To their shame, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Climate Institute and WWF support the government’s latest proposals. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry also supports the delay. “We will certainly welcome any changes,” the New York Times reported Greg Evans, director of industry policy for the ACCI, as saying. “Clearly, the balance of interests warrants delay in the implementation of the operational elements of the … scheme in Australia.” Obviously, industry welcomes anything that means that business as usual can continue for at least another two years.
Greenpeace climate campaigner John Hepburn sums up the problem. “What we need is much more serious action. We need 25 per cent cuts as a bare minimum but really we need to halve our emissions over the next decade,” he told ABC.
But it gets worse. In addition to the pandering to industry, setting targets too low and delaying the start, the government’s emissions trading scheme would allow one hundred per cent of Australia’s emissions cuts to take place overseas. The scheme puts no limit on how many emission permits and credits generated overseas could be used in place of emission cuts in Australia. This explains the Australian government’s support for a market mechanism funded REDD: Australia is going to need to buy very large numbers of carbon credits to offset its greenhouse gas emissions.
In an article in The Age, Guy Pearse points out that this massive carbon trading loophole means that whatever targets the government sets for emissions reductions they are irrelevant to cutting emissions in Australia:
“Climate Change Minister Penny Wong has effectively conceded that because the Government proposes no limit on outsourcing emission cuts, actual greenhouse pollution in Australia might not fall irrespective of what 2020 target Australia adopts. After all, if all the cuts can be outsourced cheaply, what comes out of smokestacks and tailpipes here need not change, whether we have a 5 per cent target or a 40 per cent target.”
Pearse is not fundamentally opposed to REDD. “There’s nothing wrong with protecting forests,” Pearse explained in an interview on ABC Radio. Perhaps not surprisingly for someone who used to be a member of the Liberal Party and has worked as an industry lobbyist, consultant and spin doctor, neither is Pearse opposed to “market solutions”:
“And there’s nothing wrong with trying to somehow create a market that does help to protect those forests, that you end up valuing the carbon that’s stored in those forests. The real danger though is that we use that, what we’re calling the biocarbon agenda, to postpone emissions cuts, real cuts in greenhouse pollution, whereas what we really need to be doing if we’re going to get the climate back to a safe state is both of those things.”
Pearse’s article “Quarry Vision” published earlier this year argues that Australia’s obsession with extractive industries is at the root of the problem. He also describes “an uneasy sense of déjà vu”. John Howard, Kevin Rudd’s predecessor, used a reduction in the rate of deforestation in Australia “to hide emissions and remain on track to meet the Kyoto target,” notes Pearse.
“If the targets were sufficiently unambitious,” Pearse writes, “and the potential credits offshore sufficiently abundant, Australia could even increase its emissions at home while remaining ‘on track’ with its Copenhagen target.” Certainly, the Rudd governments targets are unambitious. Meanwhile annual deforestation in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia releases about three times Australia’s annual emissions. Allowing REDD credits would allow Australia to meet any emissions targets agreed in Copenhagen by writing cheques rather than cutting emissions. This is a “hollow logs” strategy, relying on “carbon colonialism” says Pearse.
“There’s no guarantee the carbon ‘saved’ through avoided deforestation will not ‘leak’ elsewhere when timber, palm oil or cattle production moves to the next forest or country. Moreover, it enables emission-intensive industries (and national governments) to avoid cutting actual greenhouse pollution with the stroke of a pen.”
Pearse also explains why the government’s plans are so attractive to conservation organisations (like WWF and the Australian Conservation Foundation), companies (like BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto Coal, Xstrata Coal and Anglo Coal) and government’s (like Rudd’s): “With some 8 billion tonnes of CO2 annually that might be ‘saved,’ it’s an irresistible bonanza for conservationists desperate to save forests, for polluters looking to avoid emission cuts, and for government looking to make them on the cheap.”
The only thing that is guaranteed under Australia’s proposals is that emissions in Australia will continue to increase. And that climate change will, as a result, become worse.