The Rudd Government has reneged on a commitment to present its 2020 target to cut greenhouse gases to UN climate talks that start today.
The back-pedalling comes amid wrangling in cabinet over how far to go with curbing emissions.
The Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, yesterday defended the decision not to announce the target before she left for the talks in the Polish city of Poznan. She refused to comment on whether cabinet was divided over the target, which is expected to fall significantly below the level called for by European ministers, climate scientists and environmentalists who will attend the talks.
"It is the case that we said we would release the targets in December and we had indicated before Poznan," she said. But she said it was important to postpone the announcement until she released the final version of the Government's carbon pollution reduction scheme on December 15 - after she returned from Poland.
Until late last week Senator Wong repeatedly said the range of emissions cuts for the 2020 target would be set before she went to Poznan. "The intention is to announce, as I have said, our midterm target range prior to the Poznan negotiations. And that's the terms, the timetable, the Government's working on," she said on October 2.
Under intense lobbying from business and on the advice of senior officials, the Government is discussing setting a range of targets to cut greenhouse emissions by 2020. The target is now expected to be cuts between 5 per cent and 15 per cent of emissions, based on 2000 levels. This is significantly below the cuts of 25 to 40 per cent being called for by the European Union and climate scientists. The European environment ministers argue that developed countries such as Australia must agree to the higher cuts if they want to secure a new global agreement that will avoid dangerous climate change.
At last year's UN climate talks in Bali, all developed countries that had signed the Kyoto Protocol, including Australia, agreed to cuts between 25 and 40 per cent. China, India and Brazil, the fastest growing greenhouse gas polluters, argue that they will not make commitments to slow their emissions if developed countries fail to agree to this level of cuts.
By delaying the announcement of Australia's 2020 target, Senator Wong will avoid intense international criticism of Australia from European negotiators and environment groups if cabinet sets a weaker 2020 target range.
The chief executive of the environment group WWF, Greg Bourne, said Senator Wong would "be laughed out of Poznan" if she announced at the UN talks that Australia's 2020 target was between 5 and 15 per cent. Asked if she was avoiding making the announcement in Poland because of the international criticism, Senator Wong said: "I am not going to comment on a hypothetical."
The head of the Australian Conservation Council, Don Henry, said Australia needed to cut its emissions by at least a third by 2020 if it wanted to be a credible player at the UN talks.
While Europe has already promised cuts of 20 per cent, Senator Wong said few countries had yet announced firm targets for their cuts and many would not be completed until the final round of talks next year in Copenhagen.
Greens leader Bob Brown has hit out at the Federal Government over its decision not to take a concrete emissions cut target to key climate talks starting in Poland today.
The climb-down has provoked an angry response from Senator Brown, who says it has damaged Australia's climate change credentials.
"This is a complete shemozzle from the Government. Here's Australia, which was the big sensation at Bali is going to be the big cop-out at Poznan," he said.
"It's all happened in 12 months, it's quite astonishing."
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