Greens protest over Australian carbon targets

CANBERRA, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Environmentalists staged protests in Australia's major cities on Tuesday to demand tougher greenhouse emissions targets after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd promised to curb emissions by 5-15 percent by 2020.

Rudd announced the new targets on Monday, angering green groups but winning support from business, as he unveiled details of a carbon trading scheme set to start in July 2010, just months before he is due to call national elections.

Analysts said the cautious carbon targets were designed to appease business and protect jobs in the face of the global economic slowdown, and could help Rudd's re-election hopes.

"He's made a decision based on winning votes, rather than winning plaudits from the green movement," Monash University political analyst Nick Economou told Reuters.

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper said Rudd had failed to show leadership on climate change, while the Age newspaper's political editor Michelle Grattan said Rudd's plans were aimed at securing conservative political support in parliament.

"Kevin Rudd's emissions trading blueprint is laden with caution rather than vaulting ambition, as the government tries to navigate through a dreadful economic outlook and a hostile Senate," Grattan wrote.

Rudd won power in November 2007, in part on the back of his promise to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which commits developed nations to curb greenhouse emissions blamed for global warming, and his promise to introduce carbon trading in 2010.

But green groups wanted Australia, the world's biggest coal exporter, and which also relies on coal for its own electricity generation, to set an example for developing countries by promising to curb emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020.

Protesters placed sandbags around ministers' offices in Sydney to highlight the risk of rising sea levels, while in the southern city of Melbourne protesters carried a white flag and said the government had surrendered on climate change.

"I think it is an appalling and disgusting failure by the Rudd government in their duty to this nation's future," Australian Greens leader Bob Brown told reporters.

The government defended the targets on Tuesday, saying Australia would cut emissions by up to 15 percent if U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen in late 2009 agree on tough global targets for beyond 2012, when the Kyoto climate agreement expires.

"What we've been determined to do is to strike the right balance, to find the right policy that will drive the change that is required in the Australian economy over time," Climate Change Minister Penny Wong said on Tuesday.

Economou said protests from environment groups would not seriously damage Rudd's electoral standing, with economic management and the global slowdown now taking precedence as an issue over the environment.

"The onset of the global financial crisis has re-cast the political debate," he said. (Editing by Sugita Katyal)