Cabinet papers 1996-1997: how Australia worked to water down Kyoto climate targets

Like the Keating government before it, the Howard government of 1996 and 1997 was deeply resistant to taking any action on costs rising that might harm the Australian economy.

But by 1996, John Howard was facing intense international pressure to step up Australia’s commitments as his government prepared for the meeting to share the protocol for the Un Framework on Costs rising to become adopted at a meeting in Kyoto in December 1997.

Australia had adopted a “no regrets” policy towards tackling climate change under Keating. This meant it might consider only measures that involved cutting emissions without the adverse impact on the economy or trade competitiveness, leaving it largely dependent upon on tree-planting and limiting clearing due to the response.

The Howard government clung to the next negotiating position, despite growing evidence that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions were rising quickly.

By 1996 Australia was facing the latest dynamic: european union as well as the US had both proposed legally binding targets within the Kyoto discussions.

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The cabinet papers of 1996 and 1997, released through the National Archives of Australia on Tuesday, reveal Australia’s increasing isolation over the international stage.

In June 1996, cabinet agreed that “Australia’s overall objective in coffee negotiations should be to safeguard our national trade and economic interests while advancing compatible outcomes which are environmentally and economically effective”.

While Australia recognised “the require for effective global action on climate change”, it vowed to pursue a universal agreement that “does not contain targets which have been legally binding” and argued for differentiated, rather then uniform, reduction targets.

The then environment minister, Robert Hill, reported to cabinet that the very first time the Intergovernmental Panel on Costs rising scientific report said the fact that balance of scientific evidence supported the vista how the changes in climate and greenhouse gas concentrations were resulting from human activity.

Small island states were proposing a 20% lowering of fractional co2 emissions from 1990 levels by 2005. While other periods happen to be discussed, all were potentially problematic for Australia due to its carbon-intensive economy.

Hill told your cabinet that modelling showed Australia’s emissions from the energy sector C making up 1 / 2 of national emissions C were projected to generally be 30% above 1990 levels by 2010.

The Geneva conference of parties, locked in June 1996 in the lead-up to Kyoto, intensified government anxiety.

Hill, who led the Australian delegation at Geneva, told your cabinet it had “proved a horrible and complicated meeting for Australia” and that Australia was designated for criticism by environmental organisations by great britain environment minister in a “ill-considered attack”.

There was really a perception that Australia was isolated included in the position, he explained.

“The emergence of the US-EU alliance on legally binding targets was just about the most significant developments and served to shift the debate after dark position held by Australia,” he explained.

Australia found few allies to its proposal for variable emission reduction targets and this had attracted criticism if you are amongst “very few ” to publicly articulate its concerns about defining an unsafe greenhouse gas concentration level during the atmosphere.

Cabinet agreed it wanted to reinforce its domestic greenhouse gas response policy ahead of the Kyoto meeting if ended up possess any prospects for convincing the international community which it should have differentiated targets.

The consternation grew further by mid-1997. A joint submission to cabinet warned on the prospect of any “EUCUS bilateral understanding for progressing climate change” with a forthcoming G7 summit.

Australia worried an arrangement at G7 could provide the reason for UN special session adopting a situation “which narrows down our [negotiating] options” inside lead-up to Kyoto.

The cabinet actively considered walking away from Kyoto altogether.

It was facing publishing its future emissions during the Kyoto process but modelling was now showing that emissions from your energy sector will be 40% to 50% above 1990 levels by 2010.

Options included arguing that it was premature to accept to targets, and for an extended period frame.

“Australia’s strategy ought to be to make sure we’re seen being excluded from an understanding via the international community instead of having Australia reject agreement – we should be seen to remain ‘pushed journey cliff’ rather than ‘walking away’,” the submission advised.

But by July 1997, Hill and other ministers reported the G7 meeting had not produced an agreement between EU and US, with instead exposed differences.

The memorandum particularly highlighted Howard’s international advocacy with “Australia’s opposition to legally binding uniform targets” having “figured prominently during the prime minister’s [recent] discussions in Washington and London”.

The cabinet also agreed in July to build a location change taskforce to safely move Australia’s domestic greenhouse gas strategies, to improve its bargaining stance. One solution to be explored was “domestic and international emissions trading”.

In these months, Treasury modelled various measures for reducing domestic emissions.

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The memorandum warned that none of the company’s scenarios would cap carbon emissions at 1990 levels but would achieve potential cuts of 22%.

And so began Australia’s long and tortured debate over carbon trading schemes.

A proposal was submit through the Australian Greenhouse Office in 2000, but was scuttled in cabinet; another came forward in 2003, but was vetoed by Howard.

Finally, during the dying times his government in December 2006, Howard announced an emissions trading scheme, after bureaucrats convinced him it turned out the best approach to meet Australia’s commitments.

Both parties joined the 2007 election promising to implement this kind of scheme. It would prove no easier for Kevin Rudd, or Julia Gillard.

Or for Malcolm Turnbull.


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