June 4, 2007

Australian PM Promises Greenhouse Target

CANBERRA, Australia -- Prime Minister John Howard ditched his long-standing opposition to a greenhouse gas reduction target for Australia with a pledge Sunday to set a national pollution limit next year.

But critics said Howard's new stance is nothing more than a ploy to negate the environment as an issue during elections due later this year.

Howard, leader of his center-right coalition government since 1996, also told an annual meeting of his ruling Liberal Party's national council that Australia, the world's worst greenhouse gas polluter per capita, would have a carbon-trading scheme in place by 2012.

"This target will be set next year," Howard told delegates at a Sydney hotel. "The scheme will be national in scope and as comprehensive as practicable, designed to take account of global developments and preserve the competitiveness of our trade-exposed, emissions-intensive industries."

Howard's Liberals are lagging in opinion polls behind the center-left Labor Party, which advocates a 60 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and 20 percent by 2020.

Howard has ridiculed the plan as unrealistic, but he gave no clue Sunday what his reduction target would be.

An opposition lawmaker accused Howard of 11 years of inaction in government on climate change, and said a failure to set a reduction target before the election would show a lack of sincerity.

"If he was serious ... about climate change, he would be frank and tell the Australian people what his carbon-reduction target is before the election," Labor lawmaker Wayne Swan told reporters.

Australia, the world's driest continent after Antarctica, is suffering its worst drought in a century.

Diminished farm produce is weighing on economic growth, and all major cities are dangerously low on drinking water, heightening public demands for government solutions.

Howard's new commitment to set an emissions target reflects his close ally President Bush's proposal last week for 15 of the world's worst-polluting countries - including Australia which is responsible for 1.5 percent of global emissions - to agree to targets next year.

But his embrace of carbon trading conflicts with Bush's stance. A global carbon-trading program would allow countries to buy and sell carbon credits to meet limits on carbon dioxide levels.

Howard joined Bush in becoming the only leaders of the industrialized world to reject greenhouse gas emission targets set by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.