Abbott's 'mean and tricky' Australia: Lima's Colossal Fossil

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The Abbott Government has managed to turn Australia into an international climate pariah and laughing stock in the course of just one year, writes deputy editor Sandi Keane.

The Abbott Government’s abject failure to address climate change copped a deserved hammering at Lima. ‘Fossil of the Day’ awards from the international Climate Action Network rained down on Foreign Minister Julie Bishop — the only person there who didn't see global warming as a threat to the Great Barrier Reef. It all culminated in the final humiliation for the nation, with the ‘Colossal Fossil’ award being bestowed on Australia as the worst performer on climate change action for the entire year. 

Having failed to sabotage any new global agreement by demanding legally binding emissions, Julie Bishop is now trying a different tack: as the planet cooks, she wants to cook the books. This could see Australia’s emissions skyrocket to a massive 49-57% above its original 1990 Kyoto pledge.

This latest attempt to protect vested mining interests – the Coalition’s major paymasters – hedges around the success of Bishop’s threat to scuttle any agreement on the second stage of the Kyoto Protocol unless she can use the same favourable rules around land clearing agreed to in Kyoto in 1997. This would involve changing an amendment made at the Doha talks two years ago on how Australia’s target is to be calculated.

The current Protocol is due to expire in 2020 and will be replaced by a new agreement signed up to in Paris next year. It also requires the dumping of Australia’s 2009 Copenhagen Accord commitment to cut overall emissions by 5% on 2000 levels by 2020.

So, as the rest of the world acts, Australia wants to do sod all.

It was inevitable. The Abbott Government’s Direct Action Plan is a fizzer — especially now that the Queensland Government has overturned the ban on broad-scale land clearing.

What has gone unreported by mainstream media is a reminder of the land clearing con trick played by John Howard on the rest of the world back in 1997 at Kyoto.

Kyoto 1997: How rat cunning Howard conned the world

Not for nothing did current Attorney General George Brandis call John Howard the ‘lying rodent’, or Shane Stone, his party’s federal president, describe his government as ‘mean and tricky’.

In the lead-up to Kyoto, public support for action on global warming was strong. A Nielson-McNair poll showed 90% of Australians were either ‘concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about global warming; 79% felt we should sign a treaty to cut emissions; and 68% said economic pain should not stop such a treaty being signed.

In response to public concerns, vested interests both here and in the U.S. stepped up their campaign to discredit the science of global warming and the governments of both countries – responsible for the world’s highest per capita GHG emissions – rolled over. If the public wanted action on global warming, said big money, they could take a hike.

Right up until the last weeks before Kyoto, Howard had accepted the principle enshrined in pre-Kyoto agreements of mandatory targets solely for the wealthy countries. But big money can buy big favours. The world’s biggest polluters convinced the U.S. and Australia that similar reductions should be sought from developing countries. 

So, to derail negotiations at Kyoto, alone among other developed countries, Howard took key lobbyists from the mining industry along as members of the Australian delegation. Australia’s about-face on mandatory targets was met with great hostility, but no surprise, after officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) had toured the world, using research paid for largely by vested interests to lobby for a special case for Australia because of its dependence on fossil fuels.

In an eleventh hour bid to restore some credibility, Howard used his legendary rat cunning to hit on a trick that would con the rest of the world, appease his party’s major donors and get him off the hook — land clearing.

Ignored by the Government until then, a greenhouse inventory showed that emissions from land clearing were around 20% in 1990 — the expected base year for the treaty. What really piqued Howard’s interest was that land clearing had been in rapid decline since.

The scam was sheer genius and here’s how it worked:

In the late 1980s, up to 500,000 hectares of land in Queensland were cleared every year. But, after a 15 year campaign by the Wilderness Society, supported by the public, the new Goss Labor government signalled that, after 1991, permits would be needed to clear native bushland. Unsurprisingly, in 1990, land clearing reached a record 765,000 hectares, as huge bulldozers using chains were unleased on a massive scale to demolish native bushland.

In the year following the introduction of permits, it shrunk to about 325,000 hectares. 

The arithmetic was obvious.

By insisting land use emissions be included in the calculation of the total greenhouse gas emissions, Australia’s emissions could be dramatically reduced paving the way for the big polluters to increase theirs.

It was the lowest point in the sorry history of the Coalition's shirking of its responsibility to act on global warming. Howard would do sod all and there was nothing the rest of the world could do about it.

Fearing a lack of consensus would wreck any hope of an agreement at Kyoto, a reluctant deal was struck — henceforth known as the ‘Australia clause’. Only three countries were permitted to increase their emissions: Greenland 110%, Australia 108% and Norway 101%. Other industrialised nations had to cut emissions from between 6 to 8%.

Australia’s diplomatic reputation suffered serious damage as a result. Two years later, Japan would use the ‘Australia clause’ to undermine Australia’s claimed environmental credentials during negotiations over a whale sanctuary in the Pacific.

Newman Gov't on collision course with Kyoto and Copenhagen

But could Campbell Newman sabotage Bishop's plans, not to mention rout Abbott's Green Army before it even plants its first tree? 

After promising not to lift the bans on broad-scale land clearing (contributing to about 12% of Australia’s total emissions in 1998), the ‘let-‘er-rip’ Newman government has now overturned the ban introduced by Labor’s Beattie Government in 2006.

This 'here we Joh again' environmental vandalism threatens to take Australia back to the dark old days when land clearing in Queensland ranked alongside some of the most disastrous regions in the world, such as the Amazon, the Congo and Borneo .

The Wilderness Society’s Queensland campaigner, Karen Touchie, told Independent Australia:

“The ban was the most important factor in Australia reaching its 108% Kyoto target. It remains Australia’s most significant emissions abatement measure, saving an estimated 24 million tonnes of CO2 per annum.

“The two proposed agriculture schemes for Queensland’s Gulf County – IFED and Strathmore Station – aim to clear or flood almost 200,000 hectares of land. Destroying 195,000 hectares of savanna woodland would be the equivalent of adding 27-43 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, or 5 to 8% of Australia’s annual emissions.”

With Paris 2015 talks looming, time is running out for Abbott to save face now that even a semi-educated dingbat knows his Direct Action plan is a damp squib.

The Wilderness Society issued a warning:

“The scale of land clearing will make it impossible for Australia to reach its 5 per cent emissions reduction target. There is no way Abbott’s Green Army can plant enough trees to compensate for what would be like bulldozing a 10km wide strip for 200km.”

The overturning of land clearing bans will surely throw a spanner in Bishop’s machinations, putting at risk both Australia’s Copenhagen Accord commitment and any gains in GHG reduction resulting from the introduction of permits in 1991 and the bans in 2006.

Next year is shaping up as the year from hell for the Abbott government. Reforming its ‘mean and tricky’ image sounds like a sensible New Year’s Resolution right now.

Read IA’s ‘Here we Joh again’ series to find out more about the mean, tricky and allegedly corrupt Queensland Government under Campbell Newman. You can follow Sandi Keane on Twitter @Jarrapin.

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