The hypocrisy of outsourcing our emission problems

Stopping devastating tropical logging is a good thing, but it should never be at the expense of reducing emissions at home. [31 March 2009 | Peter Boyer]

How silly we’ve been! Here we were, thinking that the Rudd government’s “carbon pollution reduction scheme” was about reducing carbon pollution in Australia, when all the time it really aimed to cut emissions in places like Indonesia and Papua New Guinea!

Fancy us thinking that this scheme and other government measures were intended to cut Australian emissions by as much as 60 per cent by 2050 when, really, a zero domestic cut will be a perfectly acceptable outcome!

How simple-minded we’ve been to have ever entertained the thought that the government might really start to “knock a few heads together” (to use Prime Ministerial words) to force tough action on us in Australia, a world leader in per-capita carbon pollution.

We couldn’t have been more wrong. We now know the government intended no such thing.

In a Quarterly Essay published last week, former Howard government policy insider Guy Pearse wrote that Treasury modelling for Australia’s 2050 reduction target depended not on cuts to local emissions but on the purchase of carbon credits in developing countries to our north.

In 2006, John Howard’s cosy relationship with big fossil fuel interests persuaded Pearse to go public on how this “carbon mafia” was undermining Australia’s effort to cut carbon emissions. It was the start of a new career for Pearse as a public interest advocate in the climate policy wars.

Treasury modelling for emissions trading incorporated a scheme of “reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries” (REDD), in which polluters in developed countries will be able to buy carbon credits from landholders in developing countries. REDD is likely to come into effect after 2012 in a new climate agreement to be negotiated in Copenhagen.

Under the REDD scheme, as Pearse explained it to ABC radio last week, “you pay a landholder not to log a forest and you can claim credit for the carbon that’s stored in that forest, and you can use that towards your Australian emissions trading obligation.”

Then climate change minister Penny Wong came on the airwaves to confirm that, yes, offshore credits – “international trade”, as she put it – will be part of Australian emissions trading, asserting that Australian companies investing to reduce emissions in developing countries was a good thing.

It is absolutely a good thing that people in richer countries care enough for our planet’s future to put money into preserving tropical forests – vital resources in taking up excess atmospheric carbon – and in no way do I wish to undermine the establishment of a functional emissions trading scheme.

But it is absolutely not a good thing if unlimited offshore credits provide a way to avoid the effort of cutting excessive emissions at home.

Penny Wong will deny that this will happen, but Pearse’s analysis of Treasury modelling is damning. By 2050, the modelling says, Australian greenhouse gas emissions will be about 400 to 425 million tonnes a year – about the same as in the benchmark year of 1990 (418 million tonnes if we exclude questionable land-clearing figures that secured Australia’s favourable Kyoto target).

Australia can only achieve its 60 per cent reduction target “on paper”, Pearse says, by effectively outsourcing emission cuts through unlimited REDD credits. And it’s very likely that this will be a cheap option – another reason for taking the outsourcing path – because the carbon price on offer in Indonesia and PNG seems set to be much lower than the Australian standard.

Duplicity and hypocrisy are ever-present in our political processes, so we always knew they would be part of formulating climate policy. But we have good reason to expect a lot better than this.

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