Coalition was hesitant to take action on climate change 20 years ago too, cabinet papers show

Gay Alcorn

The Coalition’s history of reluctance to take action on climate change was alive and well in 1998 and 1999, with cabinet records giving a familiar insight into debates still raging 20 years on.

As last year’s cabinet papers release illustrated, the government was nervous in the lead-up to the international climate summit in Kyoto at the end of 1997, not wanting to commit to anything it perceived could harm Australia’s interests.

By March 1998, the cabinet was acknowledging the good deal Australia believed it had negotiated. A submission by the foreign affairs minister, Alexander Downer, the minister for the environment, Robert Hill, and the minister for resources and energy, Warwick Parer, reported the Kyoto agreement was “fair and realistic” and met “all of Australia’s primary objectives”. Key to those was Australia’s insistence on differentiated emissions reduction targets for developed countries, “reflecting individual circumstances”.

Another “important achievement”, the submission said, was “securing agreement to emissions from the land use change and forestry sector being treated in essentially the same way as those from other anthropogenic sources”.

This controversial deal still allows Australia to claim it is meeting its international obligations, even while its emissions are going up, or flatlining at best.

Australia negotiated an increase in emissions limited to 8% above 1990s levels for the period from 2008 to 2012 at Kyoto – one of only three countries not required to make cuts. That would still be a “considerable challenge”, the cabinet heard, although other wealthy countries had pledged more significant cuts. Europe promised to reduce emissions by 8% and Japan and Canada by 6%.

The submission argued Australia’s commitment represented “a cut in our projected business-as-usual growth of 30%”, comparable to the average for industrialised countries. It also noted its disappointment there had been no progress on commitments to cut emissions from developing nations.

Australia’s role in Kyoto was controversial, with Hill aggressively pursuing a special deal for Australia at a meeting determined to reach consensus. The land-clearing clause meant that because clearing had declined between 1990 and 1997, emissions from burning fossil fuels could rise substantially while overall emissions could be kept to an 8% rise.

The cabinet knew its Kyoto deal was internationally resented. Relations with the EU and Pacific nations were strained, the method for calculating emissions from land clearing had yet to be finalised, and “those who consider that Australia secured too good a deal at Kyoto may use this to try to increase our emission reduction task”.

The submission notes that in the lead-up to further climate meetings later that year, “some EU member states have a vested interest in maintaining the EU’s hardline green position because it makes good domestic politics”.

That strain continues, as do the repercussions of Australia’s deal under the Kyoto protocol. At December’s Madrid climate change conference, Australia was accused of “cheating” and was named by other countries and observers as one of a few nations that had thwarted the aims of the meeting. Australia planned to use carryover credits, an accounting measure linked to the Kyoto protocol, to meet targets it set at the Paris summit four years ago.

Australia signed the Kyoto protocol in April 1998, and the cabinet discussed whether to ratify it, which would have made commitments binding. In the end, it deferred any decision, as ratification was “a completely separate and longer-term question ... important issues remain unresolved”.

The Howard government never ratified the protocol, arguing it was not in Australia’s interests. Kevin Rudd’s Labor government, elected in 2007, made ratifying Kyoto one of its first priorities.