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Australia’s big REDD carbon scam

Australia's big REDD carbon scam PHOTO: The Loy Yang opencut coal mine in the Latrobe valley, Australia. AFP/Getty Images

The description of Australia as “the lucky country” comes from a 1964 book by Donald Horne. The final chapter starts with the words, “Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.” It is a particularly appropriate way to describe how Australia has benefited from the international climate negotiations.

Horne’s point was Australia had managed to grow rich not through the development of “clever” technology, but through exploiting its natural resources. Today, Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal. It plans to increase these exports.

A recent report written by Andrew Macintosh, Associate Director of the Australia National University’s Centre for Climate Law and Policy, documents in detail just how lucky Australia is when it comes to the climate negotiations. The report, titled, “Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries: A cautionary tale from Australia,” (pdf file, 240 KB) illustrates how Australia manages to benefit from its deforestation. The report is published by the Australia Institute.

Macintosh writes that Australia is

“the only developed country that will rely on reduced deforestation emissions as the primary way of meeting its quantified emission reduction target under the Kyoto Protocol. Australia’s approach to deforestation issues, both domestically and internationally, provides valuable insights into the difficulties a REDD-plus scheme might encounter in the future.

Here’s how the lucky country got away with it. At the 1997 UN climate negotiations in Kyoto, Australia threatened not to accept any limit on its emissions. So, the rest of the world made an offer that “was too good to refuse”, as Fred Pearce explained in New Scientist at the time.

First Australia was allowed to increase its emissions by 8% against emissions in 1990.

But that was only the start. Australia managed to get its own clause written into the Kyoto Protocol. Paragraph 3.7(2) reads as follows:

Those Parties included in Annex I for whom land-use change and forestry constituted a net source of greenhouse gas emissions in 1990 shall include in their 1990 emissions base year or period the aggregate anthropogenic carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by sources minus removals by sinks in 1990 from land-use change for the purposes of calculating their assigned amount.

What this “Australia clause” means (when it’s translated from UN-speak) is that instead of being penalised for the fact that up to 30% of its emissions in 1990 came from deforestation, Australia won the right to count any improvement on this against its overall emissions. Under the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period (2008-2012), Australia has been running its own private REDD scheme.

As ANU’s Andrew Macintosh notes, Australia’s rate of deforestation was high in 1990, releasing 132 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e). Since then, the figure had fallen. In 1997, it was around 70 MtCO2e. The baseline year for emissions under the Kyoto Protocol is 1990. Bingo! In order to gain carbon credits to offset against its fossil fuel emissions, Australia only has to ensure that the rate of deforestation is less than it was in 1990.

“[T]he capacity to include deforestation emissions in its base year will give Australia an ‘offset’ worth approximately 60 to 100 MtCO2-e per annum during the first commitment period,” Macintosh writes.

The graph below illustrates the problem:


Without its big REDD carbon scam, Australia’s emissions increased by 26% between 1990 and 2007. By offsetting these emissions against its reduced emissions from deforestation, Australia is almost on target to meet its emissions target under the Kyoto Protocol.

In an interview with, Macintosh explains that

“Even with the best intentions, it’s very difficult to devise accurate deforestation baselines, creating a risk that the scheme will inadvertently generate hot air credits. It is very difficult to accurately measure deforestation emissions, and any political leader who thinks they can control deforestation simply can’t see the wood for the trees.
“The Australian experience shows how the environmental credibility of an international REDD scheme could be undermined. Australia has one of the most advanced satellite-based monitoring systems in the world and some of the world’s leading forest researchers. Despite this, we have struggled to measure and project deforestation emissions, both of which are vital to the operation of an international scheme.”

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  1. A very good study, I hope we can get more of that articles because we can know about the situation of REDD in diferent countries.

  2. A colleague sent me an email about this post:

    “Although the example is a very good and relevant one, I think it is a bit confusing when you use the term REDD about forest activities in Australia. Although LULUCF is an even worse acronym than REDD, the article is adding confusion to an already imprecise term – and it isn’t correct either as far as I can see, because REDD only is used in context of developing countries.

    “Not that I feel the need to protect and defend the term REDD, but I believe we’re better off if we are precise in our arguments.”

    Technically speaking, this is correct. Australia’s big REDD carbon scam is really a big LULUCF carbon scam. But the point of Macintosh’s study is that Australia has been claiming to be reducing emissions through avoided deforestation – based on a hugely inflated deforestation baseline rate. This is precisely what Guyana and lots of other countries hope to get away with under REDD.

    My thinking on this was as follows: If it waddles like a duck, quacks like a duck and shits like a duck, it probably makes sense to call it duck.