Australia's climate plans aim low

Australia pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 5 to 15 percent below 2000 levels by 2020, targets that are far less than what scientists say is necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change.

By , Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor

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    The early morning sky illuminates dead trees and cracked earth on a farm near Kerang, about 224 miles north of Melbourne, in this 2007 file photo. From 2002 to 2008, Australia experienced its worst drought in 100 years.
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Australia pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 5 to 15 percent below 2000 levels by 2020, targets that are far less than what scientists say is necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change.

In a speech Monday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said that a minimum 5 percent target was unconditional. Australia would cut its carbon emissions by that number, "irrespective of the actions of other nations."

But if there is a global agreement by which all industrialized countries pledge to significantly reduce their emissions, then Australia would increase that commitment to a 15 percent cut, Mr. Rudd said.

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Down under other countries' targets

Australia's targets are less ambitious than that of the European Union. On Friday, EU leaders announced a plan to reduce greenhouse emissions by 20 percent, compared with 1990 levels, by 2020. In the United States, President Barack Obama's campaign website promises reductions of 80 percent by 2050.

The targets are also well below what climate scientists recommend. According to a major 2007 report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if the developed world cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent to 40 percent, atmospheric CO2 concentrations could be stabilized at 450 parts per million, a figure that the panel concluded is a threshold best not crossed if we wish to avert the worst effects of climate change.

But a report [PDF] published this year by leading scientists in The Open Atmospheric Science Journal found that the UN panel did not take certain feedback loops into account, and revised this figure to 350 parts per million. This number, the report concluded, should be respected “[i]f humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.”

Current atmospheric concentrations are at about 387 parts per million and rising.

A growing population

Rudd, whose first official act as prime minister was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, justified his country's lower target by pointing out that Australia's population is expected to grow by 45 percent between 1990 and 2020, mostly due to immigration, while Europe's population is expected to remain constant over that time period:

The EU’s 20 per cent target announced over the weekend is equal to a 24 per cent reduction in emissions for each European from 1990 to 2020.
Our 5 per cent unconditional target is equal to a 27 per cent reduction in carbon pollution for each Australian from 2000 to 2020 – and a 34 percent reduction for each Australian from 1990. ...
In fact if the Europeans were to adopt the same per capita effort as Australia is proposing, their economy wide cuts would be around 30 per cent by 2020.

According to Scientific American, Australia, which heavily relies on coal for electricity, has the fourth-highest per capita greenhouse emissions in the world, five times that of China.
"A global embarrassment"

Needless to say, environmental groups are unhappy with the plan. Friends of the Earth Australia called it "a recipe for disaster" and "a polluter's paradise":

“We need a plan to cut our emissions in half in the next decade and then to move to zero as quickly as possible.”
“We are in an emergency and only emergency action which mobilises the whole of society to confront the problem will do the job. Like World War II such a mobilisation can also address the problem of global recession and world wide poverty.”

The Australian Greens, who in the 2007 federal election commanded just over 9 percent of the national vote, called the plan "a global embarrassment and a recipe for global catastrophe." The party is campaigning for a 40 percent target.

Business unhappy too

While environmental groups are decrying the plan for aiming too low, Australia's business leaders are saying that it goes to far. The Voice of America quotes Peter Anderson from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who says that Rudd's blueprint is irresponsible in light of the current financial crisis:

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