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High Level Forum on Greenhouse Sinks


Senator the Hon Robert Hill
Minister for the Environment and Heritage

18 April, 2000

On behalf of the Hon. Cheryl Edwardes, the Western Australian Minister for the Environment, and myself, I would like to thank you all for coming to this Forum. We are delighted that so many Ministers and senior officials from around the world have joined us in Perth for this important meeting.

I would also like to thank Minister Edwardes and the Western Australian Government for generously agreeing to co-host this event with the Commonwealth Government, and for the warm welcome here in Perth.

Our main purpose for hosting this meeting has been to advance the work required to effectively define greenhouse sinks in time for the next Conference of the Parties in the Hague later this year.

But it also provides us with the opportunity to communicate and explain to the general public exactly what it is that we are trying to achieve through this process.

There is no question that there is a general consensus among the broader community that forests are good for the environment. Forests remove carbon from the atmosphere.

They are therefore an effective "greenhouse sink".

Perhaps our starting point in advancing our argument should be to explain to the public that when we talk of greenhouse sinks we are in fact talking about native vegetation processes which remove carbon from the atmosphere such as growing forests.

We might also be talking about land use activities such as broader revegetation or soil management activities or forest conservation, which similarly removes carbon from the atmosphere.

But we should specify the activity rather than just use the generic expression 'sinks'.

The scientists tell us that loss of forests and vegetation has contributed as much as 33 per cent of the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Given that the loss of forests is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions, it is therefore logical that the retention of existing forests and the replanting of new forests can make a major contribution to reducing greenhouse emissions.

Restoring forest cover removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and locks it away in tree trunks, roots and soil: a benefit to the atmosphere, and a benefit for natural resources.

Locking up carbon in permanent forest cover has the same greenhouse benefit as avoiding emissions from burning coal or petrol.

Individual trees do go through a lifecycle of growth and eventual death. But provided the forest re-grows a permanent benefit to the atmosphere is maintained.

The positive contribution that forests can make to our efforts to combat global warming has been recognised by science and endorsed by the international community in the Kyoto Protocol.

In doing so, the international community recognised that forests represented a valid and cost effective mechanism for nations to achieve their greenhouse reduction targets. It also implicitly acknowledged that reafforestation is an environmentally effective response to global warming.

Using forests as greenhouse sinks is not intended to be the sole response to global warming. It is, however, a valid tool to complement other measures such as reduced energy consumption.

But while we can easily measure reductions in the amount of power or fuel that we use, the measurement of the positive greenhouse benefits of forests is more complex.

Our challenge now is to provide sufficient certainty on the measurement of the positive effects of sinks to allow countries to move toward ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.

Work on sinks is lagging behind work on other key issues. We already have draft negotiating text on the flexibility mechanisms and on compliance, but we are yet to commence substantive negotiations on sinks.

Sinks pose a complex set of policy and technical questions. Through this forum, I hope that we can share thinking and experiences that will help us all to work through these issues, and also help us to understand the implications of the different options for our own and other countries.

For example, many of Australia's forests are very different to those of northern latitude developed countries. Our 50 million hectares of savanna woodlands are made up of widely spaced trees. Rules that work well for the dense forests of Canada or Sweden might not be appropriate for these open Australian woodlands.

We need to understand these differences, so we can negotiate rules that provide global greenhouse and environmental benefits.

While many of the issues are technical, Ministers and senior policy advisers cannot afford to leave the negotiations solely to the technical experts. The treatment of sinks will have implications for individual countries in meeting their Kyoto targets.

To reach decisions on sinks at COP6, it is vital that Ministers are engaged in the negotiations in the lead up to The Hague. While we can't become scientists by November, we need to understand enough of the technical features to make robust policy judgements.

For Australia, with our fragile lands, European style land use and history of land clearing, protecting and enhancing greenhouse sinks is important. Land-based activities feature in Australia's unique greenhouse gas emissions profile. They contribute one-third of our emissions inventory.

Greenhouse sinks play an important role in Australia's overall greenhouse response strategy and are also very important to Australian sustainability. Associated benefits from greenhouse sinks activities include: habitat for biodiversity, regional development opportunities, and improvements to land and water quality.

Not far from here - in the Western Australian agricultural districts, farmers struggle with the growing scourge of dryland salinity. In the Murray Darling Basin, the heartland of agriculture in eastern and southern Australia, the same struggles occur and without further action, the water supplies of cities and towns will be degraded.

Our salinity problems are one example of the impacts of the removal of too much of the native vegetation, too much of our store of carbon, from the land.

The Australian Government has invested $1.25 billion in a Natural Heritage Trust and begun the hard work of putting back the carbon which belongs in our landscape.

These programs have put native vegetation in the ground, protected and enhanced existing vegetation, improved land management practices and made substantial progress towards tripling our forestry plantation estate.

The Australian Government recognises that this work is a solid beginning, that it is important to provide incentives for private investment in revegetation and that we need to focus our energies on sustainable natural resource management at the catchment and regional level.

Regional Australia is a key player in greenhouse gas abatement. Our new $400 million Greenhouse Gas Abatement program will establish integrated regional partnerships to deliver large scale enhancement and protection of our sinks estate, combined with renewable energy generation, advances in technology and energy and transport efficiency measures.

As I announced last week, Australia has established a world first with our Bush for Greenhouse program. We have appointed a carbon broker to facilitate business investment into replanting Australia and manage the carbon pool resulting from the growth of the trees.

Reliable measurement and verification of carbon sinks is an important element attached to the Kyoto Protocol provisions on sinks. The past few years have seen substantial advances in methods for accounting for carbon.

Australia is making a large commitment to develop the accounting frameworks needed to support greenhouse sinks programs.

The National Carbon Accounting System is providing world class tools for accounting human-induced sources and sinks of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. It is designed to give us continental level accounting - a major exercise for a country as large and diverse as Australia.

The Australian Greenhouse Office is commencing the largest ever program of satellite remote sensing of the status of Australia's vegetation cover for the period 1970 to 2000. At the same time we are developing the tools for regional and project level accounting consistent with our national system.

The Kyoto Protocol currently provides a basic framework for a limited set of sinks activities, and it establishes a negotiating process to consider additional human-induced sink activities. However, this basic framework still needs to be fleshed out through international negotiations.

Having said that, what outcomes are we looking for?

Australia will be seeking a COP6 decision on sinks that all countries can work within for a better environmental outcome, whether they are developed or developing nations. For, as we look ahead to a global approach, sinks may offer one means for developing countries to play their part: a means that is environmentally effective, cost-effective and supports sustainable development.

We will be looking for rules and definitions to implement Article 3.3 that are in line with the terms of the Protocol. This means definitions that are consistent with the IPCC guidelines, which, under Article 5.2, govern reporting for the first commitment period. We also support definitions that are robust, yet flexible enough to take account of differences in countries' national circumstances.

We are still thinking through our position on how and which additional activities should be included under Article 3.4. But, I would like to emphasise that we are not interested in creating loopholes. We are only seeking to obtain credit for real, measurable and human induced sink activities.

Australia will also be seeking a decision that sinks projects are included in the Clean Development Mechanism. The Clean Development Mechanism is intended to help developed countries fulfil their Kyoto commitments, whilst at the same time contributing to developing countries' sustainable development goals and providing a source of adaptation funds for those countries most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.

However, some countries have limited potential for CDM projects on energy supply, industrial infrastructure or demand for energy. Including sinks projects in the CDM would increase the number of projects, and increase the benefits to developing countries.

More developing countries would gain the environmental and sustainable development benefits of CDM projects, and more revenue would be available for adaptation projects.

As I mentioned earlier, forests and other sink-related actions can only be part of our overall efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I believe that Australia has established an effective framework of actions which will be required to achieve our target.

Our domestic efforts emphasise leading-edge renewable energy technologies, uptake of renewable energy and improving energy efficiency in Australian industry.

We have committed almost $1 billion over five years to address greenhouse gas emissions. Australia is a world leader in terms of government funding for greenhouse on a per capita basis, a very real demonstration of the importance we place on reducing Australia's greenhouse emissions.

Opportunities to build on these efforts through forests and vegetation activities should be welcomed and encouraged.

I would note that there has been enormous interest from Australian farmers and landowners in the benefits to be gained from investments in new forests and revegetation. Investors are also lining to take advantage of this opportunity.

In essence, what we are trying to do at this forum is to ensure that we can fully utilise this community support and enthusiasm in our efforts to deliver a better environmental outcome.

We have a challenging task ahead of us this year in settling the outstanding issues relating to sinks. The issues are complex, the divergences between countries significant and the timeframe for negotiations short.

But I believe that with sufficient political will, it is possible for us to reach agreement on these important matters at COP6.

I look forward to an open and constructive exchange of views at this Forum, one that will leave us with a better understanding of the issues and provide a sound foundation for our forthcoming negotiations on greenhouse sinks as we travel towards the Hague.

Commonwealth of Australia