Greenhouse report makes Australia sweat

( dpa ) - The Australian government's top climate change adviser said the "awful arithmetic" of rising greenhouse gas emissions meant the 21 million people living on the world's driest continent would be among the biggest losers from global warming. Farmers would want money to leave the land, the tourism industry would lose the Great Barrier Reef and other key assets, there would be expensive desalination plants in every major city and the containers that once shipped food out would be bringing it in, he predicted.

To head off calamity, Professor Ross Garnaut said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had to improve on his pledge of a 60-per-cent cut in emissions by 2050 and set a stiff 2020 target to make sure work started quickly on decarbonizing the economy.

It was bad news for Rudd, who had commissioned the Garnaut report while in opposition as a ploy to get out of setting an interim target that might scare voters at the November election.

As it turned out, the Labor Party's Rudd romped home in the polling. His first act as prime minister was to do what predecessor John Howard had refused to do: sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which now commits all industrialized countries except the United States, which has not ratified the treaty, to embrace binding targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

By threatening to walk out of the talks in Kyodo, Australia got a better deal than any other country. Rather than having to reduce emissions, it only has to limit their increase.

But the 10-year free ride means that Australia is way behind in the rich world's clean-up stakes.

Garnaut said Australia's very profligacy with energy meant early and big reductions could easily be made.

The most recent figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed Australians emit more than 17 tons of carbon per person, compared with an average in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development of just more than 11 tons.

Garnaut said Australia could easily overshoot its stated goal of a 60-per-cent emissions cut by 2050.

"It will be a manageable reform that won't get in the way of prosperity and continued economic growth if we do it right," he told reporters.

Climate Change Minister Penny Wong immediately rejected anything higher than 60 per cent and relegated Garnaut to only one voice in the mix.

"Penny Wong has reduced Ross Garnaut to input," Greens leader Bob Brown observed. "There are huge vested interests at play here - the coal industry, the aluminium industry, the forest logging industry - and it's up to the Rudd government to put this country ahead of those vested interests."

Rudd would be seeking re-election in three years. Promising savage cuts to greenhouse gases would likely tip him out of office because the opposition Liberal-National coalition would always have lower targets for reducing emissions than Labor.

National member of Parliament Barnaby Joyce predicted a Labor loss in 2011 if living standards fall along with emissions.

"I strongly believe that Australia's affection for carbon emissions reduction will fly out the window when poverty starts walking in the door," Joyce said.

Carbon trading expert Frank Jotzo from Australian National University in Canberra said drastic measures are unavoidable if emissions are to be reduced significantly.

"The greenhouse gases in an economy are really a bit like an oil tanker: You can certainly turn them around in the long term, but it's quite difficult to get drastic shifts in the short term," Jotzo said, "so I'm not saying it wouldn't be possible but it would really require some significant action."

With the coal industry quarantined from any pain - Rudd has ruled out even a single nuclear power station - Labor has a struggle ahead of itself to back his words with action.

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