By Gregg Borschmann for Radio National - exclusive
ABC News Online, 14 December 2009
see also Carbon Emissions Soar, The Age http://www.theage.com.au/environment/carbon-emissions-soar-20091213-kqi2.html
The Australian Government has been accused of accounting fraud in the reporting of its carbon emissions.
By ignoring a massive rise in polluting gases from the agricultural and forestry industries, Australia has managed to make its overall emissions seem much lower than they actually are.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, Australia is allowed to increase carbon emissions by 8 per cent compared to 1990 levels.
But figures supplied to the United Nations earlier this year show that between 1990 and 2007, Australia's real carbon emissions actually rose by 82 per cent.
The dramatic increase has mainly been caused by rising emissions from Australia's rural lands, caused by bushfires and drought.
But it is those very same agricultural, grazing and grasslands that both major political parties in Australia hope will help offset the country's rising industrial emissions.
Australia has led the charge on proposed land use rule changes to the new global climate deal. The changes will open the door to the bonanza of green carbon that can be stored away in the world's rural lands.
'Get out of jail free'
But the move is deeply dividing the Copenhagen conference. Australia - and other big players - have been accused of a trying to pull off a rort.
Christine Milne, who is in Copenhagen as the climate change spokesperson for the Australian Greens, says Australia has been trying to "cook the books".
"The United States has always wanted to use Land Use Land Use Change and Forestry as a mechanism for not having to do as much in its fossil fuel sector, and Australia has always been the fall guy for the US," she said.
"So I think what you are seeing is the umbrella group, chaired by Australia, including the US, including Canada, trying to really cook the books in some dodgy deals on land use."
That is not an error. It is actually called Land Use Land Use Change and Forestry. Everything in these negotiations has an acronym - this one is LULU_CF.
But developing nations fear that with some changes to the existing rules, LULU_CF may be the way that countries like Australia will wriggle out of the reductions currently being negotiated for 2020 greenhouse targets.
A climate scientist for International Rivers network, Dr Payal Parekh, says such loopholes will water down the carbon targets.
"It essentially means that developed countries, including Australia, could actually increase their emissions in the next few years," he said.
"What it means is that it is a total scam. It appears as if something is done, but it is not.
"The best way to sum it up is that it is a 'get out of jail free card'."
Earlier this year, Australia quietly supplied the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change with its latest official greenhouse data.
With a blow-out in emissions in the land use sector of 657 per cent, it is no surprise the Government was not keen to publicise the figures.
Australia has chosen not to account for these land use emissions as part of its reporting under the Kyoto Protocol.
This is because with events such as bushfires and drought, there are huge and unpredictable spikes - for example, the 2002-03 Victorian bushfires caused a massive blow-out in Australia's emissions.
But because the Government is desperate to unlock Australia's rural lands for so-called carbon farming, it is proposing LULU_CF rule changes that would mean nations did not have to account for emissions caused by so-called extraordinary events or circumstances.
Then the door could be opened to carbon farming in paddocks and grasslands from Wubin to Wangaratta, from Burke to Barcaldine.
But an expert on LULU_CF for Greenpeace International, Paul Winn, is not impressed.
"These are basically accounting frauds; they're just shuffling the cards," he said.
"The atmosphere sees the same amounts of emissions, but the accounts are shuffled."
'Green carbon' controversy
Australia is not the only country playing this game. The Americans - who already trade carbon for about $US5 a tonne on the Chicago Climate Exchange - have made it clear they will be making extensive use of land use off-sets.
No-one is arguing that carbon farming is a bad thing. At its simplest, it will involve farmers adopting landcare principles they have been encouraged to follow for decades.
In fact, carbon farming has become almost the holy grail of sustainable land management, giving farmers another income stream to "do the right thing" - with outcomes that will boost biodiversity and agricultural productivity.
But the argument is whether this 'green carbon' will become a substitute for dealing with the brown carbon - the emissions that come out of our smokestacks and tailpipes.
And that is why it has become such a controversial issue during negotiations at Copenhagen for a new global climate deal.
Developing nations are increasingly recognising the potential for countries such as Canada, the US and Australia to offset rising industrial pollution against carbon sequestration in rural landscapes.
"What's going on here is that there is a suggestion that you can use Land Use Land Use Change and Forestry and the creative accounting around that without the robust figures in place," Christine Milne said.
"And you can use that to offset your emissions reduction targets, especially in your fossil fuel sector.
"It is very clear that you need to reduce your emissions from fossil fuels and you need to sequester carbon in the landscape and you need to protect your forests as carbon stores, but that isn't happening," she continued.
"What we are seeing is attempts to be offset and quite dishonest systems so that we are going to end up with something that doesn't actually save the climate."
Greenpeace's Paul Winn is worried that carbon farming will undermine the integrity of the 2020 targets, assuming they are agreed to this week.
"This has the potential to be the green-washing of Copenhagen; there are a number of factors that will affect Australia and at a stroke of the pen will change emissions into removals," he said.
Doubts about effectiveness
The Government, for its part, does not see what the fuss is all about. It is not proposing any caps on land use offsets.
Climate Change Minister Penny Wong is keen to find and save a tonne of carbon wherever she can - at the smokestack or out in the back-blocks.
The Government says emission reductions from Australia's forest and agriculture sector are just as real as reductions in other sectors of the economy.
But a source who knows the arcane world of greenhouse gas accounting well is not so sure.
This source told Radio National Breakfast that there were huge problems trying to account for carbon in rural landscapes.
And given the uncertainty, the only "real" emissions - the ones that really needed to be cut - came from the energy, transport and industrial sectors.
"This is all about paper shuffling. It's not about reducing emissions," the source told Breakfast.
"I would be suspicious any [accounting] method in that land use sector is tactical to reduce pressure on other emissions.
"This Government is not any more committed to doing anything about cutting greenhouse gas emissions than the previous government - and we're not the only country doing it."