AUSTRALIA has been accused of pushing for a ''get-out clause'' on climate change that would grant it unlimited carbon credits from new forestry plantations while pretending that enormous greenhouse gas emissions from bushfire did not exist.
The Federal Government wants a Copenhagen climate deal to allow countries to opt to include forestry and crop lands that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in their national greenhouse accounts. Most land and forestry emissions, including "natural disturbances" such as bushfire and drought, would be excluded.
In a year such as 2003, when Victorian fires burned more than a million hectares, this could mean not accounting for up to 200 million tones of carbon dioxide - about a third of Australia's annual emissions.
Forestry emissions are among the many unresolved issues on the agenda at a week-long UN climate meeting starting today in Barcelona - the last formal talks before next month's Copenhagen summit.
The Australian position, in line with the structure of the existing Kyoto Protocol, is backed by Canada and New Zealand. It raised the ire of the developing countries' bloc known as the G77, which wants to limit the offsets that can count towards a national greenhouse target. Environmentalists say the Rudd Government is following the Howard government in lobbying for accounting rules that would reduce the pressure on greenhouse-intensive industries to change.
Greenpeace forests and climate campaigner Paul Winn said "emissions are emissions", having the same impact whether from bushfire or coal-fired power. He backed the G77 position.
''We all want to see better land management, we all want to see terrestrial sinks included, but up to now [land and forestry emissions] have just been a get-out clause," he said.
Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner Owen Pascoe said Australia should use forestry offsets to increase its 2020 emissions target.
He said the ACF did not oppose excluding natural disturbances, depending on the details, but the Government was yet to define them. Would, for example, a fire lit by a faulty power line be considered natural or caused by human hand?
Forest land is predicted to draw down about 42 million tonnes of carbon dioxide next year - about 7 per cent of Australia's annual emissions.
A Government spokeswoman said it wanted a deal that would encourage comparable effort from all countries to reduce emissions from deforestation.
It is widely acknowledged that a treaty is unlikely to be signed in Copenhagen. The European Union offered some progress on Friday when it agreed that the cost of fighting climate change would top 100 billion euros ($A164 billion) by 2020, but did not back it with specific commitments.
A Climate Institute analysis suggests existing pledges would require Australia to take on a target of a 15 per cent cut below 2000 levels by 2020, based on the criteria that were set out by the Rudd Government.