CANBERRA - A major oil producer ExxonMobil has sponsored a seminar featuring leading Australian and global sceptics disputing the science behind the Kyoto Treaty, ahead of two important international conferences this week backing the need for substantial reductions in greenhouse emissions.
Richard Dennis, the Deputy Director of the Canberra-based think tank The Australia Institute, dismissed the ExxonMobil-sponsored seminar in Parliament House on Monday as designed ''to muddy the waters'' over climate science in the eyes of key decision makers.
''The explicit strategic objective of these companies is not to win this debate but to postpone it ... For people who want to get another 10 or 20 years benefits out of existing policy setting then the easiest way to go about that is to sound entirely rational saying that we need more precision,'' he said.
Organiser of the seminar Alan Oxley, chairman of the pro-free trade Australian APEC Study Centre at Monash University in Melbourne, described the sceptics' seminar as a ''reality check'' on last week's announcement by Australian state governments that they would bypass the national government and their own national system to regulate and trade greenhouse gas emissions.
Co-sponsoring the seminar were Xstrata Coal, which operates over 30 coal mines in Australia and South Africa, and Tech Central Station (TCS), a conservative U.S. commentary website which is published and funded by the Republican aligned lobbying firm DCI Group and its clients. Oxley hosts the Asia-Pacific pages of TCS.
While Oxley emphasized the importance of his seminar, other than the speakers, it only managed to attract approximately 40 participants.
Before Russia ratified the Kyoto Treaty late last year bringing it into effect this February, critics complained that it should be opposed because it excluded developing countries such as India and China.
China is the world's second largest source of greenhouse gases - the main cause of global warming and the International Energy Agency in Paris predicts that the increase in greenhouse gas emissions from 2000 to 2030 in China alone will nearly equal the increase from the entire industrialised world.
Oxley is now seeking to woo developing countries as potential allies in an effort to ensure the Kyoto Treaty lapses at the end of the first implementation period in 2012. In a backgrounder for the conference Oxley argued that the treaty ''will constrain efforts of governments in the developing world to raise living standards.''
The Kyoto Treaty came into force on Feb. 16, seven years after it was agreed. The accord requires countries to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Some 141 countries, accounting for 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, have ratified the treaty, which pledges to cut these emissions by 5.2 percent by 2012.
But the world's top polluter - the U.S. - has not signed up to the treaty and neither has Australia. Prime Minister John Howard said the international protocol would undermine the country's industries with ''no environmental gain to Australia''.
''Were Australia to ratify, investment would go to those countries with no greenhouse restrictions,'' Howard said on the website of the Office of the Prime Minister.
The U.S. government's chief climate change negotiator, Harlan Watson dismissed the Kyoto agreement as too inflexible at the seminar. ''It's certainly not something the United States is going to be willing to go forward with, nor do we believe a number of large developing countries, including India and China (will do so)'', he told the 'Australian Financial Review' daily.
While a special fund, the Clean Development Mechanism, has been established to finance projects that reduce greenhouse emissions in developing countries, Oxley complains that ''the approval process will deter investment and the conditions on projects (controlled by donors) will make them less attractive to developing countries than either ordinary foreign investment or normal aid projects.''
The Australia Institute's Denniss dismisses this argument. ''If there is a problem with the approval process then he should identify how to simplify it. Even if his concerns are valid that doesn't mean that it's not going to work,'' he told IPS.
While many of the presenters at Oxley's conference were critical of the science underpinning the Kyoto Treaty, scientist John Zillman defended the quality of the process and the integrity of its projections which government negotiators drew upon in the formulation of the Kyoto Treaty.
Zillman, who for a decade was Australia's lead negotiator to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advising governments on climate science, describes himself as being ''on the conservative side of the IPCC consensus'' estimate. He said that he was ''not aware of any other mechanism with anything like the same pressures for objectivity. So my answer is that the IPCC assessments are the most reliable source of information on climate change that yet exists.''
Zillman also expressed his concern that in recent years the work of the IPCC had been hampered by a range of factors including some governments ''representing their political agendas as scientific argument'' and individuals identified as lead authors being co-opted to review comments that were based ''much more on ideology than science''.
On Wednesday a conference in Melbourne will hear from British scientists emphasizing the need for major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century. A third conference will be held in Sydney on Thursday and Friday with support from the major U.S. philanthropic foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts and with the involvement of environment departments from both Australia and New Zealand.
Dennis argues the ExxonMobil-sponsored seminar was designed to shield the Australian government from public criticism expected to emerge from participants at the other conferences later this week. ''The Australian government is pretty lonely in the climate change debate ... and there aren't many people who are passionately in favour of banging out more emissions into the atmosphere. So I think the government just needs a little bit of cover,'' he said.
While the manager of ExxonMobil's Science, Strategy and Programs, Brian Flannery, acknowledged that the climate science demonstrates ''the existence of risk that may be serious for society and ecosystems'' he argued that the most appropriate action was to pursue further climate research ''to improve the understanding of risks.''
It is an argument that Denniss has little time for. ''Let's face it what money market trader can predict interest rates to four decimal places in fifty years time. None. Does this mean we don't employ monetary policy today? Of course not. You make decisions based on the available information,'' he said.
- 183 Environment