- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2008

SYDNEY, Australia | Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has infuriated environmentalists with a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as little as 5 percent by the year 2020 - far less than a government panel had recommended.

Mr. Rudd’s announcement last week sparked a wave of protests, including one in which demonstrators copied the tactics of an Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush in Baghdad.

Mr. Rudd called the government plan “one of the largest and most important structural reforms to our economy in a generation.”

Environmental groups had hoped that Australia, home to the world’s largest coal industry, would cut emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020 from 2000 levels.

But Mr. Rudd said he was worried about the ability of Australian companies, especially the nation’s coal industry, to comply with stringent measures during a global economic downturn.

“We will be attacked from the far right for taking any action at all,” he said. “We will be attacked from parts of the far left for not going far enough by refusing to close down Australia’s coal industry. We believe we got the balance just right.”

Protesters reacted furiously, blockading several federal government buildings across the country.

In Adelaide, demonstrators threw shoes at a man wearing a papier-mache mask modeled after Mr. Rudd In Hobart, protesters donned masks portraying other federal Labor ministers said to have betrayed Australians.

The government left open the possibility of emission cuts of up to 15 percent. But it left the final target dependent on whether other countries, including major emitters China and India, agree on a new deal at a United Nations-sponsored meeting in Copenhagen next year. The meeting is to produce a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which commits developed nations to curb emissions blamed for disruptive climate change.

Mr. Rudd said his lower target would “deliver necessary reform to tackle the long-term challenge of climate change, while supporting our economy and securing jobs during this global recession.”

The prime minister came to power in November 2007, in part because of his environmental promises, and he accepted the Kyoto accord as his first official act.

In the year leading up to this month’s announcement of the 5 percent to 15 percent target, many had expected Mr. Rudd to adapt a 25 percent to 40 percent curb recommended by an independent, government-commissioned study.

Economist Ross Garnaut, who wrote the report, warned that Australia´s failure to enact more stringent measures to deal with climate change will cause it to loose iconic attractions such as the Great Barrier Reef.

Climate change poses a “diabolical policy problem - harder than any other issue of high importance that has come before our polity in living memory,” Mr. Garnaut said.

“Without early and strong action some time before 2020, we will realize that we´ve indelibly surrendered to forces that have moved beyond our control.”

Despite the criticism, the U.N. climate chief, Yvo de Boer, said Australia should be applauded for its efforts.

“Australia has now put a figure on the table, something countries have been calling for a long time,” Mr. de Boer told ABC Radio’s “AM” program. “Now the time begins when we can compare the commitments that different countries are willing to make and see if they measure up to each other.”

The new targets are part of a broader emissions-trading program set to begin by July 1, 2010, if Parliament approves.

The carbon-trading plan would require about 1,000 Australian companies emitting more than 25,000 tons of carbon to buy permits to cover their emissions, either in Australia or in international markets.

Up to 25 percent of permits would be given to industries competing in international markets that don’t impose a carbon tax. Big polluters such as petroleum refining, pulp and paper, plastics and glass could apply for free permits.

Coal mining is not eligible for free permits but the industry is to receive federal aid to help mines reduce emissions.

“No one gets a free ride under this scheme,” said Climate Change Minister Penny Wong. “We have put in place assistance for Australian firms who are exposed on world markets and who bear significant costs under the scheme.

“But … they all have to contribute, they all have to pay a price to some proportion for the pollution they put into the atmosphere, for the first time. … They haven’t had to do that before.”

While Australia has relatively low overall greenhouse gas emissions for an industrialized country, it is one of the world´s highest per-capita emitters, mainly because of coal.

Coal miners in New South Wales alone, Australia´s most populous state, export enough coal to supply New Zealand, Indonesia and Singapore with all their electricity.

Along with neighboring Queensland and Victoria, New South Wales produces enough coal to provide Australia with 83 percent of its power.

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