Australia: Rudd dobbed himself into dilemma

Peter Hartcher | The Sydney Morning Herald

The Rudd Government is aiming to make one of its most difficult decisions in the next three days – setting the target for cutting Australia’s carbon emissions over the next 12 years.

A cabinet sub-committee has been meeting every second day, searching for agreement on one of the signature issues of Rudd’s first term.

The Government does not plan to announce its decision until it publishes its white paper on December 15. But the main elements of the new national carbon regime will be decided before the Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, leaves for Poland for an international meeting on Monday.

The long-range target was the easy part – last year Rudd announced an intention to cut carbon output by 60 per cent by 2050, relative to the level of 2000.

The more distant the date, the bolder the Government. It’s easy to be brave making a promise that can’t be tested till decades after your government is an artefact and your only media appearance is in a dusty portrait.

The target for 2020, the so-called interim target, is the hard one. It’s the one the country will have to commit to in the next two years, the one the Government will be held to account for. What should it be?

United Nations climate scientists urge that, to arrest global warming before it reaches a “tipping point” of irreversible damage, governments need to stabilise carbon in the atmosphere around the current level of 450 parts per million by mid-century. To achieve this, the interim target would need to be for a cut to Australia’s carbon output of 25 per cent by 2020.

The damage to the economy? Simulations by the Commonwealth Treasury predict it would be modest. From 2010 to 2020 cumulative growth would be 2 percentage points lower than it would be without any cut to emissions.

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