Fiona Harvey Australia’s climate change plans part II: what’s my baseline?

Australia has now committed to cut its emissions by 15 to 25 per cent, compared with 2000 levels, by 2020. But is this commitment all that it seems?

Australia’s commitment appears still much weaker than that of other countries such as the European Union. Under the Kyoto protocol, Australia was allowed to increase its greenhouse gas emissions, and did so. Although for years, until the election of Mr Rudd in 2007, the country refused to ratify the protocol, it was – ironically – always on track to meet its commitments.

The protocol takes as its baseline the level of emissions in 1990. The European Union has agreed to cut its emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, compared with 1990 levels, or by 30 per cent if other countries agree to take similarly strong measures.

But as Australia has increased its emissions since 1990, it would be much harder for it to agree to use that year as a baseline. Hence it has chosen 2000 as its baseline.

The US has agreed to return its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. This does not look as strong as that of the EU, but it would imply a cut of more than 16 per cent compared with emissions levels today – which would be more effort in the next 10 years than the EU would have to make to reach its 20 per cent target.

The choice of baselines can be very misleading. For instance, the UK last month set the world’s first “carbon budget” – setting a level of emissions reductions which the government is legally bound to meet. The headline level of cuts – of 34 per cent by 2020, compared with 1990 levels – looks very impressive, and much stronger than even the EU’s commitment. That headline level breaks down into several carbon budgets of three years duration each.

But consider what the baseline means in this instance. The UK’s emissions fell rapidly in the 1990s as the country switched from using coal to gas for power generation. It is on track to meet its Kyoto commitment of a 12.5 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2012, compared with 1990 levels.

That cushion, of a substantial fall in emissions more than a decade ago, means the UK can afford to be generous with its targets. In fact, a closer look at the government’s carbon budget reveals the country could meet its first carbon budget – which runs to 2012 – with very little effort. According to the preferred measurement of the UK’s Treasury, emissions have already fallen by about 21 per cent.

The UK’s first carbon budget, to 2012, requires a 22 per cent fall.

This is important because, for countries working on the netotiations for a new treaty at Copenhagen, these differences over baselines and what constitutes “comparable efforts” by different countries are a major bone of contention.

Using a 1990 baseline would flatter the commitments of countries such as the UK and other EU states, making them look tougher, while the commitments of other countries, such as the US, may look feeble.

Japan is another key player here – its prime minister, Taro Aso, said on Tuesday that it had not yet decided on a level for cuts, which would be somewhere between a 4 percent increase in emissions to a 25 percent reduction.

A particularly important point for Japan is that countries which have already made a strong effort to cut their emissions should be rewarded for it. Japan is much more energy efficient than most other countries, especially its neighbour and rival China. That means that further efforts to cut emissions are much harder, because of the diminishing returns. So any commitment, Japan insists, should take the long view of how much efforts countries have already made and how much more it might cost them to take further action.

Australia’s strengthened commitment has been welcomed by other countries, but there is still a long way to go before there is any real international agreement on this issue.