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Australia Outlines Climate Change Blueprint

Australia has promised to introduce the most comprehensive carbon trading program outside Europe in 2010. The government in Canberra plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least five percent by 2020, but it could make bigger reductions if other countries agree to tougher targets.

The Australian government warns that without tough environmental measures the country could lose key industries and jobs.

Officials say decisive action needed

Climate Change Minister Penny Wong says the economy is under threat and decisive action is needed.

Central to the government's climate change plan is a carbon emissions trading program that will be introduced within two years. It would involve one thousand of the nation's biggest companies and would cover about three-quarters of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.

Many scientists believe that greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, contribute to global warming. Many of them are released by burning fuels such as coal and oil.

Business leaders ask government to delay plan

Companies will be required to buy permits for each ton of carbon they emit, although big polluting exporters will receive up to 90 percent of their carbon licenses free.

Many business leaders want the government to delay the plan because of the current global financial crisis, which is slowing the Australian economy.

Peter Anderson from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry says it is irresponsible to bring in a carbon trading plan now.

"It does beg the basic question and that is whether or not these costs can be borne by business in the first place at a time when Australia is going through an international economic firestorm and we need to come through that economic firestorm with a strong economy," Anderson noted. "And placing domestic stress on the economy is just going to make that more difficult."

Environmentalists say more needs to be done

Environmentalists, on the other hand, say Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has not properly addressed the threat of climate change. Activists had sought a minimum emissions cut of 25 percent.

Instead, the Rudd government aims to cuts carbon emissions by at least five percent of 2000 levels by 2020. That amount could rise to 15 percent, if future global agreements set such a target.

Ray Nias of the environmental group WWF says Australia will pay the price for low targets.

"This is a deeply, deeply disappointing target," Nias said. "It commits Australia to long-term climate change. It will make Australia's ability to negotiate global agreements very, very difficult. It is much lower than even we had imaged the worst case being."

Australia has one of the highest per-capita greenhouse emissions rates in the world because of its reliance on coal for electricity.

Some scientists warn that the vast, arid Australian continent, which has been suffering a series of droughts in recent years, could be one of the region's hardest hit by global warming.

Australian farmers will be exempt from the carbon trading system for at least five years.