'We didn't know exactly what we needed to do': The climate change battle in 1994

The Keating government wrestled with the politics and policies of climate change, not least in terms of how Australia might retain its leverage in international forums where its reputation was slipping through 1994.

It also dawned on Cabinet that the cost for Australia to meet climate change commitments was far higher than those faced by European and north American nations.

Cabinet was advised in September that the commitments in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change were already proving insufficient to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations "at a level that would prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system".

Further, international pressure was mounting to strengthen those commitments. Yet even within the formula negotiated to recognise its status as an "emissions-intensive" economy, Australia was "only likely to achieve 46 to 53 per cent" of its target by 2000.

Against this poor response, it was vital that Australia remain a credible player, not least to prevent the adoption of "unqualified ??? uniform" commitments favoured by many nations, which would be even more damaging to Australia's interests.

Kim Beazley, finance minister at the time, recalled that even though Cabinet was aware of climate change as a pressing problem, the science was vague and not understood.

"What we didn't have was an understanding of it ... the impact of a whole range of activities on the biosphere, land use, ocean use ...," he said.

"You didn't know what it exactly was that you needed to do."

Adopting policies - including controlled land clearing - coupled with subsidies, tradeable permits and charging practices, might enhance reputation, but these would need to be "non-binding and equitable commitments" which would not detract from national economic competitiveness.

There were blue sky hopes: Enhanced support for an integrated, strategic approach to "greenhouse science", in which Australia should aspire to become a world leader in "climate modelling", would also help bolster national influence - not least in correcting for a dominant northern hemisphere perspective in international discussions. So would a concerted working of bilateral networks to deepen an appreciation of the challenge Australia faced.

The 2000 targets required Australia to reduce emissions by about 4.2 tonnes per person, while the figure for the US was over a third less at 1.3 tonnes.

This story 'We didn't know exactly what we needed to do': The climate change battle in 1994 first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.