December 15, 2008

Australia Makes Changes To Its Climate Program

Australia drew scrutiny on Monday following an announcement that it would cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 5 to 15 percent by 2020.

Critics of the new plan say it undermines the effort to reach a global agreement for carbon output levels. The Green Party referred to the new proposals as "a global embarrassment."

Also, Australia plans to implement a carbon trading scheme by 2010, that will cover 75 percent of emissions and include 1,000 of the country's biggest firms, but will initially exclude Australia's drought-battered farmers.

"Without action on climate change, Australia faces a future of parched farms, bleached reefs and empty reservoirs," said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Rudd said the carbon scheme was vital for Australia, which has the fourth-highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and five times more per person than China, due to its reliance on coal for electricity.

"It's a total and utter failure. It's madness. Climate change is happening much faster than people thought. Five percent, which is what we are looking at, is an outrage," Greenpeace climate campaigner John Hepburn said.

Rudd said the plan would not undermine his commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 60 percent from 2000 levels by 2050.

"No, that's not good enough," was one response from a woman in the audience before she was restrained by officials at the National Press Club in Canberra on Monday.

The new carbon trading scheme will see an initial cap on prices, but allow exemptions of up to 90 percent for major polluters who could be penalized by the added cost when facing untaxed competitors on the international market.

Environmental groups have been lobbying for months for a 2020 reduction target to be set at a minimum of 25 percent, as recommended for developed countries by the United Nation's expert Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"The weak targets announced today will damage Australia's international reputation and hold back progress toward an effective international agreement," Australian Conservation Foundation executive director Don Henry said in a statement.

Rudd's government says the new scheme will trim only 0.1 percent off annual growth in domestic national product from 2010 to 2050, with a one-off increase in inflation of about 1.1 percent.

Rudd defended the targets by saying they were more aggressive on a per-capita basis than those in the European Union.

The system will cover 75 percent of Australia's carbon emissions and involve 1,000 of the nation's biggest firms, the government said, and participating firms will need to surrender a permit for every ton of carbon emitted.

"You could say that the decision came down to a choice between the environment and the economy," said Gary Cox, head of environmental derivatives at global brokers Newedge.

"And at this stage it looks like the economy has won."