| Australian CO2 delay sends 'mixed message'|
|Australia has given UN climate talks a boost by saying it could toughen emissions targets by 2020, according to some experts.|
But the government has also announced a delay to the start of emissions trading by a year until July 2011, raising doubts as to whether fighting climate change is top of the political agenda.
Australia has projected itself as a leader in UN 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, appears to be struggling to cut its carbon output, among the world's highest per capita.
"Australia has delivered a mixed message to the rest of the world," says climate policy and development expert Matthew Clarke of Deakin University in Melbourne.
"A delayed start to the emission trading scheme suggests a reduced importance of tackling climate change," adds Clarke.
"However, the increased reduction target highlights a strong commitment to reducing Australian carbon emissions."
The government announced it would back a 25% cut in emissions from 2000 levels by 2020 if other developed nations agree to do something similar as part of deal at the end of the year to replace the Kyoto Protocol.
The previous range of 5% to 15% is well below the UN Climate Panel's finding that developed nations need to cut their emissions between 25% to 40% below 1990 levels by 2020.
Delegates from nearly 200 nations will meet at the end of the year in the Danish capital of Copenhagen to try to agree on the broad outlines of a pact to replace Kyoto from 2013.
Eyes on Australia
China, India and other big developing nations have demanded cuts of 25% to 40% 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 US 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%, which is still very difficult to achieve, that will seen as positive by the United States," says Greg Bourne, CEO of environmental campaigners WWF Australia.
"They won't care about the emissions trading scheme slowdown," says Bourne. "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 US emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020, or about 15% down from 2000 levels.
Professor Ian Lowe, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, described the 25% 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 says.
The EU backs a 20% emissions cut by 2020 from 1990 levels, up to 30% 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," says Clarke.
Not far enough
The Australian Greens, whose support for the emissions trading laws in the Senate will be crucial in coming weeks, say the 25% target was not good enough.
"The Rudd Government has put such stringent conditions on their 25% target that no-one internationally could have any faith that they will actually move," says Australian Greens Deputy Leader Senator Christine Milne.
Others say the decision to delay the carbon scheme is 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," says 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."