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Australia slammed as climate change ‘foot dragger’ after cuts rollback

Canberra scales back targets on greenhouse-gas reduction; Pacific nation warns Barrier Reef, atoll countries at risk

Australia’s new greenhouse-gas reduction plan has been slammed by critics as woefully inadequate, with one Pacific island country noting that if other countries followed suit, it would lead to the disappearance of the Great Barrier Reef and vulnerable atoll nations.

Lawmakers in Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative government on Tuesday agreed on a goal of curbing carbon gas emissions to at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The target could go as high as 28 percent, he said.

But the target lags behind the ambitions of most wealthy countries. Professor Steven Sherwood, the director of the Climate Change Research Center at University of New South Wales, described it as "weak enough to reinforce Australia's new reputation as the world's foot dragger."

And the announcement was greeted by anger among Pacific island nations that look to be among the worst hit by the warming climate and rising sea levels.

“This seems to be another example of Australian exceptionalism when it comes to tackling the biggest economic, environmental and security challenge of the 21st century,” said Tony de Brum, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, where destructive storms and king tides are a recurrent problem.

"If the rest of the world followed Australia’s lead, the Great Barrier Reef would disappear. So would my country and the other vulnerable atoll nations on Australia’s doorstep," he added.

Canberra’s target — rolled back from an earlier proposal of a 30 percent emissions cut over the same time frame — falls below that of the U.S., which has pledged to cut emissions 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025, compared with 2005. The European Union has pledged a reduction of 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030.

Abbott characterized his proposals as being "fairly and squarely in the middle of comparable economies."

Others disagreed. Australia's target "undoubtedly puts Australia well toward the back of the pack, really at the bottom end of all the developed economies, and we start from a very high polluting point," Mark Butler, an opposition spokesman on climate change, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

"We are the highest polluters per head of population in the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], so we do have a substantial amount of work to do," Butler added.

Australia's commitment to global cooperation on tackling climate change has come under fire since Abbott's government was elected in 2013. Last year Australia repealed a three-year-old carbon tax on the nation's worst greenhouse-gas polluters.

In June the government reduced its renewable energy target — a policy to ensure a minimum amount of Australia's electricity comes from renewable sources by 2020 — from a legislated 41,000 gigawatt hours minimum to 33,000 gigawatt hours.

Abbott also announced Tuesday he would not attend a United Nations climate summit in Paris in December, when world leaders will attempt to forge a new global agreement on reducing emissions after 2020. Instead, the country will be represented by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

Australia is one of the world's worst greenhouse gas emitters per person because of its heavy reliance on abundant reserves of cheap coal to generate power. 

Meena Raman, a negotiator at the Malaysian-based Third World Network, which links activists and analysts from developing countries to follow U.N. processes, said Australia's conservative target undermined confidence in the outcome of the Paris summit.

"A proposal this weak suggests that the Australian government wants to see the Paris conference fail to deliver the fair and necessary agreement we need," she said in a statement.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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