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On Monday 30th November, the 21st annual Conference of Parties – that grand international climate conference where world leaders gather to debate how best to kick the can that bit further down the road kicked off.

Twenty-one of these, and Paris is looking set to serve up another dose of deja-vu with said world leaders quibbling about who should do what. None of the purely voluntary contributions on the table are backed by the science; they’re all grossly inadequate.

The continued rise in emissions twenty years on from the first COP indicates an elaborate waste of time. What is the point of these annual conferences if the result is not a reduction in emissions?  

Australia’s report to the COP this year will essentially boil down to just one thing: we’ve already achieved our targets, so we can sit back and chill while someone else tackles global warming.

According to environment minister Greg Hunt, Australia has already met its 2020 greenhouse emissions reduction target. Chances are he’s spoken too soon; the next five years are likely to see increases that contradict his premature statement.

Nevertheless, such achievements are easy to tout when one shifts the goalposts and cooks the books on emissions accounting.  

Shifting the goalposts

The target of 5% below 2000 levels by 2020 represents a shifting of the goalposts. In 1990, Australia had agreed to a reduction target of 20% below 1990 levels by 2005, which is not a target we came anywhere close to meeting.

The seismic shifting of Australia’s target occurred at COP 3 in Kyoto in 1997, where Australia wangled an emissions increase of 8% from 1990 levels as its target.

In practice, Australia’s ‘reduction’ target was a carefully controlled increase, with the commitment to 20% below 1990 levels by 2005 swinging to 108% of 1990 levels by 2015.

The Kyoto Protocol was then signed, but not ratified, and it took another five years for then Prime Minister John Howard to announce that the Protocol would not be ratified as it was ‘not in the national interest’.

You’d be forgiven for suggesting Kevin Rudd’s ten years-belated ratification in 2007 was PR-friendly lip-service.

Shifting the goalposts makes it that bit easier to score.  

Cooking the books

Accounting tricks are precisely the reason why accountants are valued so highly – cooking the books allows us to continue cooking the climate without criticism.  

The special deal done at Kyoto has made Australia’s target easy to reach, but we will still miss our weak target. According to research firm RepuTex, Australia’s emissions will continue to rise, reaching a 4% increase from 2000 levels by 2020.  

Our present lull in emissions increase has little to do with policy measures. Instead, it seems more of a blip thanks to economic slowdown and the decline in onshore manufacturing.

Emissions are in the same slump as employment.

But there’s also the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund, which is basically just a pot they dip into to buy carbon credits – which is just a way of buying the right to keep on with business as usual with added feel-good factor.


It doesn’t stop there. As well as re-labelling an increase as a reduction, the Australian delegation at Kyoto forced the inclusion of a special clause in article 3.7 of the Protocol which set 1990 as the baseline for assessing emissions targets.

With this baseline Australia had scored a get out of jail free card. In 1990 Australia’s land-clearing rate was so high that emissions soared. Reductions since 1990 represent not a decrease in land-clearing from the norm, but a return to the norm from an unusually high level.

The re-framing and re-labelling masked a 28% increase in emission between 1990 and 2012 from all sources except land use and forestry.

The ‘drop’ in emissions (it is hard to talk with a straight face about reductions when the actual figure is 108% of 1990 levels) showing up in Australia’s creative carbon accounting are more a reflection of an artificially high baseline than any actual efforts to reduce emissions.

You can use numbers to tell whatever story you want.

Land-clearing for what?

Aside from creating a veil for industry-related emissions increase by stealth, the 1990 baseline has also set an artificially high baseline for agricultural emissions, a source that’s not on the COP 21 agenda.

Land-clearing is primarily carried out for agricultural purposes, and the vast majority of land cleared for food production is for livestock – mainly grazing land for cattle and sheep. In Australia 58% of land use is specifically designated for the purpose of grazing livestock.

It is largely for this reason that the livestock sector is responsible for such a large percentage of greenhouse emissions – anything from 18%, according to UNFAO, to 51%, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

Even at the lower estimate, livestock blows more of our carbon budget than the entire transport sector combined.

Australian livestock-related emissions fall toward the upper end of those two estimates, at 50%.  

Since COP 17 in Durban, agriculture has been on the agenda, but so far it’s been a one-way street. The effects of climate change on agriculture are finally on the table for discussion, but the effects of agriculture on climate change are not.

Reforestation and afforestation have become measures for racking up carbon credits for trading emissions allowances, and not meaningful ends in themselves. But we are going to need to reclaim that cleared land for carbon sinks if we are to have any chance of staying below a two-degree increase.

The climatarian solution

While COP 21 is unlikely to point out the elephant in the conference room, Australians need not watch in despair from the sidelines. There are a few things we can do despite the poor leadership on display.

Reducing livestock-related emissions begins with reducing demand for meat – specifically beef and lamb, the two most emissions-intensive sources of food.

According to Australian organisation Less Meat Less Heat, reducing red meat consumption to an average of 50 grams per day – within the range recommended by nutritional guidelines – can cut agricultural emissions by 22% while reducing the cost of mitigation by 50%. That’s good news for your colon as well as for the climate.

While COP 21 may turn out to be another climate action cop-out, the stakes are too high to leave it up to the experts. Climate action begins at home, and we can’t have our steak and eat it.

Photo credit: "Piker bullock" by Kay Carter – Gooreen collection. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.