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ENVIRONMENT-AUSTRALIA: Emissions Reduction Target ‘Weak’

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Dec 29 2008 (IPS) - The gap between the Rudd government’s rhetoric and practice in addressing climate change, albeit with one eye on the worsening global financial conditions, has led to a palpable feeling of betrayal among Australians.

“Climate change is nothing less than a threat to our people, our nation, our planet,” said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at the launch of the government’s emissions trading scheme, officially called the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), on Dec.15.

He described the CPRS – the bedrock upon which the government hopes Australia will reduces its greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions by placing a cost on carbon pollution to encourage major polluters to reduce emissions – as “a programme of responsible action”.

Although the Rudd government was elected in November last year on a platform that included a dedicated response to global warming – the Australian Labor Party (ALP) pledged that ratifying the Kyoto Protocol would be one of its first tasks upon coming to power – the interim target for GhG reductions announced at the CPRS launch has largely been panned.

The government has committed to reduce emissions by between just five and fifteen percent on 2000 levels by 2020.

The five percent cut is the unconditional, minimal cut which Australia will make unilaterally, with room for an increased target if other nations – including China and India – also make commitments.

“Fifteen percent below 2000 levels is our commitment to reduce emissions further if there is a global agreement where all major economies commit to substantially restrain emissions and advanced economies take on comparable reductions to that of Australia,” said Rudd.

Protests were staged around the country in the wake of the announced target range, while Prof. Andy Pitman, an Australian scientist on the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that the 2020 target is not good enough.

Environmentalists have also hit out at the five to fifteen percent target, with Greenpeace Australia Pacific and the Australian Conservation Foundation respectively describing it as “an appalling betrayal” and “a weak target.”

And while the United Nation’s climate chief Yvo de Boer welcomed Australia’s decision to enter the carbon market as a good beginning, the leader of the Australian Greens party, Bob Brown, said that the five percent target “is a global embarrassment and a recipe for global catastrophe.”

The Greens, who hold five seats in the upper house, are calling for a senate inquiry into the government’s five percent target, with the conservative opposition also appearing to back such an inquiry.

“It is vital that the senate scrutinises this target on behalf of all Australians, examining how it stands up on the key questions of scientific adequacy and global fairness,” said the party’s deputy leader, Christine Milne.

The legislation for the CPRS – the Rudd government wants the emissions trading scheme to begin in 2010 – is expected to be introduced to parliament early next year, but the government will need support from the Greens, other smaller parties, independents or the opposition in the Senate in order to pass the laws.

Despite Australia’s relatively low interim target – the European Union committed to a 20 percent cut in emissions by 2020 at December’s climate change conference, held in the Polish city of Poznan – the government maintains that it is committed to a long-term strategy to reduce GhG emissions by 60 percent on 2000 levels by 2050.

The government has also been criticised for delaying the announcement of its 2020 target until after the conference in Poland, despite previously stating that the interim target would be revealed prior to the meeting.

However, perhaps the best indication of the seemingly growing divide between the Rudd government’s rhetoric on addressing climate change and its actual policies was the reaction to the five to fifteen percent emissions reduction target by Prof. Ross Garnaut, who completed his tenure as the government’s chief climate change advisor upon the release of his final report in September.

An economist commissioned by Labor to examine the impacts of climate change on Australia’s economy last year – the now-governing party was still in opposition at the time – Garnaut has himself been pilloried for calling on Australia to adopt a five percent reduction target by 2020 if a global agreement is not secured at next year’s climate change conference in Copenhagen.

Although endorsing the pejorative description of the government’s targets as “soft,” Garnaut argues that Australia should push for an agreement which would commit it to reduce emissions on 2000 levels by between 10 and 25 percent by 2020.

He also criticised the assistance afforded to emissions-intensive industries. The coal industry, for example, is set to receive more than AUD 4 billion (2.7 billion US dollars) in free carbon pollution permits.

While big business and unions have welcomed the low target and high assistance package, the pragmatic side of the Rudd government has also been revealed.

The current downturn in the global economy has not left Australia unscathed, with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), of which Australia is a member, estimating that the nation’s economic growth will slip to 1.75 percent in 2009.

Recent figures from the Westpac-Melbourne Institute show that the economy grew by just 0.6 percent in October, well below Australia’s long-term growth trend of 3.8 percent.

The Rudd government’s response has been, in part, to provide an economic “shot in the arm” with the release of an AUD 10.4 billion (7.19 million US dollars) economic stimulus package, yet it is clear that the government fears a backlash over any adverse effects on the economy – real or perceived – that may stem from its efforts to mitigate dangerous climate change.

The danger for Rudd and the Labor party is that after little more than a year in office, during which they have enacted a number of electorate-pleasing policies, these efforts at addressing climate change – the Prime Minister recently described climate change as “one of the greatest, enduring challenges that we face as a nation and as an international community” – will not stand-up to their own rhetoric.

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