The federal government has been furiously spinning Australia’s position in the wake of the Biden-led climate summit last week. It adopts the position that Australia can take some kind of moral high ground in climate negotiations because we meet our commitments, by implication this means that other countries have failed to do so. Is this the case?
To date the main emission reduction targets that countries have committed to are the two Kyoto periods, ending in 2012 and 2020 respectively. As with the more recent Paris agreement, countries chose their own targets without any reference to whether they were comparable degrees of difficulty or not. Unlike Paris, only a small number of mostly rich countries committed themselves to emission targets. Large developing countries like China, India and Brazil were not covered, even though these countries are now well up the list of major emitters. The US did not ratify their target for either period. Japan, Canada and Russia ducked out of the second period. Australia was pretty late to ratify, as John Howard refused to do so, and it was left to Kevin Rudd during his “climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation” phase.
Nonetheless those that went through with their commitment broadly met their target, both collectively and individually including Australia. There are various caveats, including that most of the work was done by the break-up and consequent economic collapse of the old Soviet bloc of countries whose emissions nose-dived along with their heavy industry. Further, the GFC made meeting targets easier. Several countries only met their targets through use of the “flexibility mechanisms”, allowed under the Kyoto protocol, including purchasing EU emissions trading scheme (ETS) units and Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) credits. The latter, in particular, may have simply created carbon leakage given such credits come from countries that had made no binding commitments.
The second Kyoto period only concluded at the end of last year, so the formal arithmetic is still being carried out. However, it appears that again, tively on track to meet their targets.
So, the historical performance for those countries that committed to Kyoto targets is reasonable. However, the US never ratified Kyoto and did not achieve its notional targets.
Looking forward to the achievement of Paris targets, which are largely aimed at 2030 or 2035, a much greater level of ambition has been announced by developed countries. So some scepticism is justified, but equally it is too soon to say that these targets won’t be achieved.
At the summit President Biden upped the US’s commitment to a 50 per cent cut in emissions on 2005 levels by 2030. The trouble with taking this at face value is that there is no sign that Republicans have bought into this scale of emissions reduction. So if the presidency changes hands in 2024, all bets are off again for the US.
The other standout in ambition terms is the UK. They recently legislated a commitment to a 78 per cent cut on 1990 levels by 2035. The UK has a better track record than the US, having beaten both its Kyoto period targets comfortably. Its commitment can be considered politically stable, with bipartisan support for deep emission cuts and legal force. However, these tough targets are no gimme. The UK’s independent Climate Change Commission (CCC) has taken the government to task for not implementing the policies necessary to continue meeting its targets. Analysis commissioned by the CCC on the UK’s historical performance also suggests that a windfall from a recalculation of the EU ETS cap, plus broader economic factors such as shifting patterns of production, key energy prices and the economic headwinds of the GFC and Brexit may have driven more emissions reduction than the policies designed to achieve these goals.
The chart below shows how the UK’s carbon footprint (noting that this measure is pretty rough and ready) that accounts for the emissions embedded in goods and services consumed by the Brits kept rising even after the in-country emissions were on the decline.
On top of the above there is the climate elephant in the room – China. The world’s largest emitter is a signatory to the Paris agreement too, but remains cagey about when it will actually manage to turn its emissions around. So it’s understandable that the Australian government doesn’t want to get too gung ho about greater ambitions at this stage. But international politics is about the optics of these promises and the action towards them as well as the reality. On this basis, we are at risk of being cast as the climate laggards of the developed world regardless of our track record (we met some soft targets thanks to land use emission accounting working in our favour), with the spectre of carbon tariffs being raised on a regular basis. Perhaps it’s time to play less to the gallery in regional coal towns and more to the international latte-sipping elites who decide international trade rules.