Mastodon 2002 Cabinet Documents: Climate change impacts acknowledged by Foreign Minister Downer and Environment Minister Kemp as Australia refuses to sign Kyoto Protocol | Climate Citizen Mastodon

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

2002 Cabinet Documents: Climate change impacts acknowledged by Foreign Minister Downer and Environment Minister Kemp as Australia refuses to sign Kyoto Protocol

Howard Cabinet in 2002

Cabinet documents released by the National Archives from 2002 shine a light on the conservative Liberal-National Party Coalition Government of Prime Minister John Howard in refusing to sign on to the UNFCCC Kyoto Protocol, and also the decision not to proceed with a High Speed East Coast Train network linking Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane.

The Cabinet documents highlight that Cabinet Ministers Alexander Downer (Foreign Minister) and David Kemp (Environment and Heritage Minister) acknowledged that climate impacts would be felt by Australians, no matter what measures were taken. Rather than planning for the future as suggested by a Treasury Department submission, little action was taken regarding expansion of the fossil fuel sector, or long term inter-capital transport planning.


In 2002 in the BOM Annual Climate Statement, the overall Australian annual mean temperature was 0.61 C above the 1961-90 normal, making 2002 Australia's fifth warmest year on record since 1910.

Just for a comparison, below find the Annual mean temperature trend 1910-2022 by the BOM with the 5 year mean trend. Take into account 2020, 2021, 2022 have been La Nina Years. LaNina years tends to suppress temperatures for Australia:


David Lee, Associate Professor of History, UNSW Sydney, at The Conversation, outlines the cabinet documents release significance. In a longer background piece at National Archives he outlines the  climate and environment actions and context.

Issues related to climate change, the environment and heritage feature in the 2002 Cabinet papers as they did in 2001.59 In July 2002 Cabinet considered a report from Downer and David Kemp, Minister for the Environment and Heritage, on Australia’s climate change strategy against the background of the 2001 Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.60 That report had concluded that human-induced climate change was already occurring and that some of its effects might already be irreversible.61  

Downer and Kemp agreed that whatever measures were taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, climate change would have some effects on Australia. By this time, however, the Bush Administration had decided not to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and there was yet no clear path to developing countries accepting binding commitments.62 The European Union and Japan had ratified the protocol in 2002, but it was not until 2005, after subsequent ratification by Russia and Canada, that the protocol came into effect.63  

Australia had in 1997 negotiated a special deal by which it only had to limit emissions by 108 per cent over its 1990 level during the period from 2008 to 2012. Australia was also benefiting from a one-off sharp decline in land-clearing emissions post-1990. It was thus in a strong position to meet the 1997 commitments. Nonetheless, Cabinet accepted advice that there were ‘risks for Australia in burdening its emission-intensive trade-exposed industries with costs not faced by competitors, and that it is not in Australia’s interest to ratify the Protocol’.64 Cabinet further agreed not to ratify the protocol until it was demonstrated to be in Australia’s national interest to do so. 

The government conceded, nevertheless, that Australia should continue to participate in international climate change discussions to protect its economic and trade interests and with the aim of developing an international climate change regime in the longer term. In the co-ordination comments for the joint submission of the two ministers, the Treasury was the most critical, arguing for cost-effective investment in cleaner technologies and domestic policies that concentrated on transparent, broad-based incentives to adopt such technologies rather than direct subsidies.65  

Cabinet’s lack of commitment to the Kyoto Protocol in 2002 reflected the government’s emphasis on maintaining the competitiveness of the Australian economy, which was substantially dependent on fossil fuels. Climate change in 2002 was not the urgent political issue it has become twenty years later. Now the effects of climate change are clearly visible throughout the world and the necessity for action is compelling. 

Downer and Kemp also made submissions to Cabinet on the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) Conference, held in Johannesburg, South Africa, between 26 August and 4 September 2002 with participation by governments, international organisations, multilateral financial institutions and non-governmental organisations.66 The WSSD conference had its roots in the 1983 Brundtland Commission, which provided momentum for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)). The Brundtland Commission had defined sustainable development as a ‘system of development that meets the basic needs of all people without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own life-sustaining needs’.67  

The conference attracted 65,000 people, including UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Russian President Vladimir Putin but not George Bush. Cabinet agreed that the objectives of the Australian delegation should focus on consolidating progress on oceans management, sustainable agriculture, protecting World Trade Organisation (WTO) rights and promoting the benefits of globalisation and good governance. In the event, the conference agreed on 27 August 2002 to restore the world’s depleted fisheries by 2015 and to have ‘partnership initiatives’ as a key means to achieve the Millenium Development Goals (these were eight international development goals agreed at the 2000 Millennium Summit of the United Nations to be achieved by 2015).

By this time, the Howard Government’s launch in 1998 of Australia’s Oceans Policy had established Australia’s reputation as a world leader in marine management. The aim of its oceans policy was to establish Regional Marine Plans as a mechanism to promote integrated and ecosystem-planning and management.68 

In March Cabinet considered a proposal from Kemp and Warren Truss, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, to extend the Natural Heritage Trust, an account set up in 1997 to conserve the ‘natural capital infrastructure’ of Australia. This fulfilled a 2001 election commitment to extend the Trust so that it could continue to fund salinity, water quality, biodiversity, and native bush restoration projects.

East Coast High Speed Rail Network Planning cancelled

Also of relevance is long term transport planning. The airlines and aviation industry has benefited from transport infrastructure decisions taken by Cabinet. 

If a high speed rail network had of been started, we would already have this infrastructure connecting cities, similar to networks in Europe and China. We would have an alternative mode of travel to some of the most popular flight routes to reduce aviation emissions.  David Lee says:

Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson made several submissions on transport and regional policy. In one, cabinet decided not to proceed with a proposal for a very-high-speed rail network between Brisbane and Melbourne on economic grounds. Now, 20 years later, the Albanese government has reversed the decision.

Delving deeper with the background article at National Archives:

In March 2002 Cabinet agreed to wind up a scoping study (designed for the calendar years 2001 and 2002) for establishment of a 2000 km Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney-Brisbane Very High Speed Train. Phase 1 of the study indicated that cost estimates ranged between $33 billion and $59 billion for construction over a ten- to twenty-year period of the full 2000 km network with trains travelling at speeds of between 250 km per hour to 500 km per hour. Cabinet agreed to cancel the study as unfeasible due to the high amount of public expenditure required and the estimated low benefit from it. Twenty years later, Anthony Albanese’s Labor Government introduced legislation to establish a High Speed Rail Authority and to commence work on just such a network.

The third term Howard government was the recipient of the mining boom, but failed to do the long term actions and planning to act on climate change in reducing emissions. By its failure in proceeding with High Speed Rail it provided a huge subsidy for the domestic airlines and aviation emissions to continue increasing carbon emissions.

The Australia clause in the Kyoto Protocol allowed Australia to increase its emissions, and then we failed to sign the agreement after negotiating such a sweet deal.

Ambition on climate only ramped up in the 2007 election when both the Coalition and Labor promised to introduce an Emissions Trading Scheme. Tony Abbott playing politics with climate first as Opposition Leader, then as prime Minister was at the heart of the climate warsdenial and delay that wasted over a decade for action. 

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