But as we also had confirmed last week, the government plans to use credits earned during the current Kyoto Protocol – the global climate accord Kevin Rudd signed Australia up to in 2007 – to count against the Paris target.
Indeed, the “Climate Solutions Package” released on Monday makes no effort to hide the use of these Kyoto “carryover” credits – even if they’re oddly bundled with the unrelated Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro plan.
So, booking those credits, Australia’s 695 million tonnes of abatement task shrinks to just 328 million tonnes.
Our Paris goal has just magically become 12.25 per cent, or less than half the 26 per cent “headline” reduction.
Again, on paper, the presumed cost of getting off fossil fuels suddenly got a lot smaller. How good is that?
Actually not so good.
For one thing, the Paris accord was meant to be a reset for all nations, in order to more aggressively reduce the greenhouse gas emissions than under Kyoto. Whatever surplus credits nations had built up were not intended to count. That’s why Germany, the UK and Sweden were among nations to cancel surplus credits they built up during the Kyoto period.
Second, nations like Russia and Ukraine are eying similar get-out-climate-actions cards.
Third, delays of real action means Australia’s emissions, rising since 2014 are likely to continue to do so. Delays in taking decarbonising the economy means missed opportunities and possibly higher costs later.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison touts the pea-and-thimble game as a national triumph.
“Australia has been successful,” he told 7.30 on Monday.
“We took a…750-million tonne deficit on what was required to meet our 2020 [Kyoto] targets when we were first elected, and that is going to be turned around to a 367-million tonne surplus,” he said.
“So we’ve had a 1.1 billion-tonne turnaround under our management as a result of the climate change action policies we put in place.”
Setting aside the utility of those “action policies” – and the jury has a lot ot weigh – the celebration of this “success” is actually premature.
For one thing, the public, once alerted, may not be so accepting of this particular “climate solution”.
And analysts such as Malte Meinshausen – who heads the Australian-German Climate and Energy College at Melbourne University and served as a negotiator at climate talks – say United Nations rules reject the use of carry-over credits from the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol (2008-2012) to count for Paris.
“Under Kyoto Protocol rules, there are deliberately no carry-over rules for any credits that sit in the [Previous period surplus reserve],” Associate Professor Meinshausen says.
“Thus, the credits that are shifted after [the first phase of Kyoto] into the [reserve] sit there and rot there forever, but cannot be carried over into any subsequent commitment period.”
By his estimate, that would immediately annul the 128 million tonnes – or about a third – of the surplus Morrison is counting.
The second period of Kyoto runs until 2020, and the use of remaining “credits’ can’t be banked on either.
The Paris rulebook is still be drawn up, but as New Zealand’s climate minister James Shaw said last December, the use of such a “surplus” was against the spirit of the Paris accord.
The European Union will also likely want a clarification.
Whether a stink gets kicked up or not depends a lot on federal Labor.
It has dismissed “accounting tricks” but also said it would “take advice” if it won office in May as whether the credits can be used.
However, as Anote Tong, the former president of Kiribati told me on Tuesday, climate change is an “existential risk” for Pacific nations such as his as storms intensify and sea levels rise. Accounting changes don’t reduce that threat.
“We need to step forward with genuine commitment,” he said.
“We’re not talking, really, numbers. We’re talking about the survival of people.”
Peter Hannam is the Herald’s environment editor.
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.