Australia postpones carbon pollution curbs

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced Tuesday a two-year delay in government plans to tax Australia's worst industrial polluters — a move that puts legislative efforts to curb gases blamed for climate change on hold until after national elections.

The government had proposed annual limits on the amount of carbon that major polluters can emit and supported a system whereby companies could exceed their limits if they agreed to buy carbon trading permits.

Rudd said he had no choice but to put the legislation on hold after the main opposition Liberal Party withdrew its support because the U.N. climate change conference last December failed to agree on a legally binding treaty to cut global emissions. Opponents also say Rudd's plan amounts to a huge new tax on industries that spew heat-trapping gas into the air, like power companies.

Rudd — whose government needs Liberal support to get the legislation through the opposition-dominated Senate — on Tuesday blamed the Liberals for forcing him to shelve the legislation until after 2012 when the Kyoto Protocol on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions ends.

"By the end of that period, governments around the world will be required to make clear their commitments for the post-2012 period," Rudd told reporters. But the opposition claims Rudd fears that higher energy prices as a result of the scheme would lead to voter anger and cost his party the election.

Rudd had planned to implement his plan in July 2011. That scheme is now delayed until 2013 at the earliest if the government is re-elected later this year.

Both the government and opposition have promised to cut Australia's greenhouse emissions by at least 5 percent below 2000 levels by 2020.

But the opposition proposes that Australia cut emissions by paying major polluters taxpayer-funded incentives to reduce pollution and by planting 20 million trees. No penalties would be imposed for failure to reduce pollution under the opposition plan.

When Rudd was elected in 2007, he declared addressing climate change as the great moral challenge of the current generations.

Andrew Macintosh, Associate Director of the Australian National University's Center for Climate Law and Policy, said the government's new stance would harm international negotiations to reach a strong agreement to replace the Kyoto pact.

"I think the takeaway message for the international community is going to be Australia is backing away from a carbon price," Macintosh told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio, referring to the proposed charge on polluters for each ton of carbon that they emit.

Australia is a small greenhouse gas polluter in global terms, but one of the worst per capita because it relies heavily for its electricity on its abundant reserves of coal, which also make it the world's largest exporter of the polluting fuel. As the driest continent after Antarctica, it is also considered one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change.