By David Fogarty, Climate Change Correspondent, Asia
SINGAPORE, May 4 (Reuters) - Australia has given U.N. climate talks a boost by saying it could toughen emissions targets by 2020, something developing countries want from richer nations as the world tries to seal a broader climate pact.
But the government also bowed to industry demands as it announced on Monday a delay to the start of emissions trading by a year until July 2011, raising doubts that fighting climate change was still top of the political agenda amid a recession.
Australia has tried to project itself as a leader in U.N. climate negotiations and emissions trading since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd won office in late 2007 and ratified the Kyoto Protocol as his first official act.
But the world’s top coal exporter, and a big producer of steel, aluminium and liquefied natural gas, is now more of a laggard as it struggles to cut the nation’s carbon pollution, among the world’s highest per capita.
"Australia has delivered a mixed message to the rest of the world. A delayed start to the emission trading scheme suggests a reduced importance of tackling climate change," climate policy and development expert Matthew Clarke told Reuters.
"However, the increased reduction target highlights a strong commitment to reducing Australian carbon emissions," added Clarke, of the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University in Melbourne.
The government said it would back a 25 percent cut in emissions from 2000 levels by 2020 if other rich nations agreed something similar as part of deal at the end of the year to replace the Kyoto Protocol. [ID:nSYD475320]
The previous range of 5 to 15 percent is well below the U.N. Climate Panel’s finding that developed nations need to cut their emissions between 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.
Delegates from nearly 200 nations meet at the end of the year in the Danish capital to try to agree on the broad outlines of a pact to replace Kyoto from 2013.
EYES ON THE TARGET
China, India and other big developing nations have demanded cuts of 25-40 percent as well as substantial funding for climate change adaptation and transfer of affordable clean-energy technology to earn their support for a post-Kyoto deal.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is also trying to get emissions trading legislation through Congress and will be eyeing closely what Australia is doing.
"The fact the government’s signalled 25 percent, which is still very difficult to achieve, that will seen as positive by the United States," said Greg Bourne, CEO of environmental campaigners WWF-Australia.
"They won’t care about the emissions trading scheme slowdown," he told Reuters. "They’ll see that as just a pragmatic thing to do during a global financial crisis and they may have to do something similar."
Obama has pledged to cut U.S. emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020, or about 15 percent down from 2000 levels.
Academic Ian Lowe, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, described the 25 percent target as a significant step forward.
"It puts Australia in a leadership position along with the EU in relation to developed countries targets which will be crucial for a sound Copenhagen outcome," he said. The EU backs a 20 percent emissions cut by 2020 from 1990 levels, up to 30 percent if other rich nations agree on deep reductions.
Yet doubts remain on the strength of Australia’s commitment. "The global financial crisis may now be seen as a reason to delay action on climate change. Therefore, pressure to deliver a post-Kyoto agreement at Copenhagen at the end of this year may now be reduced," said Clarke in a response to questions emailed by Reuters.
The Australian Greens, whose support for the emissions trading laws in the Senate will be crucial in coming weeks, said the 25 percent target was not good enough. "The Rudd Government has put such stringent conditions on their 25 percent target that no-one internationally could have any faith that they will actually move," Australian Greens Deputy Leader Senator Christine Milne told Reuters.
Others said the decision to delay the carbon scheme was not a sign Australia was shying away from cutting emissions.
"Given that what we are negotiating internationally now is not scheduled to enter into force until 2013, we are not so concerned with the one-year delay in the Australian trading scheme," said Kim Carstensen, the head of WWF International’s Global Climate Initiative.
"We see the new Australian announcements as a clear signal to the world -- and also to Australia’s citizens and industries -- of the direction and the level of ambition we can expect, and that is the most important thing." (Editing by Michael Urquhart)