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Australia Blocked Critics From Big Environment Meet, Say Enviros

by Bob Burton

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(IPS) CANBERRA -- The Australian government hosted a three-day forum on greenhouse issues but excluded Pacific island governments most at risk from sea level rise, while inviting those it sees as potential members of a "coalition of countries to support our negotiating goals."

The "High Level Forum on Greenhouse Sinks" in Perth, attended by representatives from 30 countries, concluded April 19 with the Australian Minister for the Environment, Senator Robert Hill, pleased that the forum had "accelerated progress" in international negotiations on the role of tree planting in meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets.

An internal Australian government memo on the forum, prepared by the Australian Greenhouse Office, states the purpose of the workshop was to "build an international coalition among developed and developing countries to help us pursue our objectives on sinks."

"The overall aim of the forum," the memo stated, "will be to build a coalition of countries to support our negotiating goals on sinks" prior to a Conference of the Parties, scheduled for November in the Netherlands which will resolve many of the outstanding issues from the Kyoto greenhouse treaty.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in December 1997, one of the remaining issues left unresolved was the degree to which countries would be allowed to rely on the planting of trees to absorb greenhouse gases, referred to as "sinks."

Australia's Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill, says "the definition of sinks is central to Australia's capacity to meet its Kyoto target." Hill recently told business delegates that unless he gets a favorable outcome on what is permitted under the provisions on "sinks" Australia will not ratify the agreement.

The Kyoto agreement calls for total cuts of 5 percent of greenhouse emissions compared to the base year of 1990. While many scientists argue that cuts of up to 70 percent may be required to stabilize the global climate, Australia's aggressive lobbying was rewarded when on the final day it was given an eight percent increase over 1990 levels.

Environmental groups have accused Canberra of trying to sidestep international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to shield its coal mining, aluminum and power generation industries.

"We are extremely concerned that Australia's maneuvering at the high level forum is aimed at seriously undermining the environmental effectiveness of the Kyoto protocol in exchange for protecting Australia's fossil fuel industry from emission reduction policies," Greenpeace International's Climate Policy Director, Bill Hare said.

South Pacific countries are increasingly reluctant to criticize Australia for fear of losing aid grants
Five Pacific nations joined the U.S., Russia, Britain and France at the High Level Forum in Perth. But the five -- Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Melanesia group -- aren't among those under immediate threat from rising sea levels that are accompanying the warming and expansion of the oceans.

Greenpeace has accused the Australian Government of trying to split the Pacific island states by inviting representatives from logging nations, such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, which have potential for tree plantations which Australian could fund and gain "credits" for, while excluding countries such as Tuvalu, which has little land area and is highly critical of Australia's approach.

Australia has angered many South Pacific governments by ridiculing suggestions that islands will be at risk from sea level rises.

Two years ago the Executive Director of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Brian Fisher, told an international conference that as a result of sea levels rising "in a worst case situation, emigration may be necessary. While such policies may seem drastic and potentially expensive, their appeal will be increased because the costs and benefits... may be relatively easy to estimate."

John Muteb from the Federated States of Micronesia told Australia radio that the small island states wanted to see reductions in greenhouse gasses. "Most of the Pacific islands are comprised of small atolls and small islands, coral islands," he said.

South Pacific countries are increasingly reluctant to criticize Australia for fear of losing aid grants. "I see that tendency," Muteb said.

While the Australian government invited handpicked "key members" from the European Union, such as Finland, France and the UK, others, which are more critical of "sinks," were excluded. "Germany should have been invited, countries such as China and India who are worried about this problem should have been invited," Hare said.

While representatives from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand attended, informed sources indicated they were less than impressed by Australia and the U.S. threatening that they wouldn't ratify the Kyoto agreements unless they gained concessions.

Greenhouse researchers, too, worry that the moves by the Australian government could undermine the basis of the Kyoto agreement. "International best estimates now indicate that if the loophole (on sinks) is exploited to the maximum, it would completely absolve industrialized countries of any need to reduce the growth of emissions from fossil fuels," Clive Hamilton from the Canberra-based think tank, the Australia Institute.

"Trees only store carbon until they die or are burnt -- after that the carbon is released straight back into the atmosphere. The Australian government is threatening world commitments to stopping global warming with the argument that we can depend on trees to 'sink' carbon," Hare said.

Greens Senator Bob Brown accuses the government of being hypocritical when it comes to forests. "While Environment Minister Robert Hill is at the invitation-only international conference on sinks, Australia's biggest sink, old growth forests are being logged at record rates."

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Albion Monitor May 8, 2000 (

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