Australia's climate pledge has plenty of room for improvement

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This week, the Australian Government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced its intention to cut carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent based on 2005 levels by 2030. This target has already drawn criticism from domestic and international civil society groups, as well as foreign leaders.

In a statement, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Marshall Islands said: "It's very difficult to understand why a sundrenched Australia needs five years more than the United States to achieve a 26 to 28% emissions reduction."

Australia's independent Climate Change Authority had recommended a cut of 40 to 60 percent below 2000 levels. Instead, the Abbott government used the base year 2005, when emissions were higher, to give the appearance of a higher pledge even as it aimed for a significantly lower level of ambition. Translating the Climate Change Authority's to 2005 levels - the Authority's recommendation would mean a 45 to 63 percent cut in emissions by 2030, and the new pledge is far below that number. Instead of heading its advice, the Abbott government has attempted unsuccessfully to get rid of the Climate Change Authority.

Australia's pledge means it is one of the underachievers in the lead-up to the Paris climate conference, along with Canada and Japan, which have both been chided for a lack of ambition in the pledges they have submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change ahead of the next major climate summit in Paris this December.

Weak Federal Leadership on Climate Change

Since coming to office Abbott has actively resisted climate action by repealing a carbon pricing scheme introduced by the previous government, cutting the national renewable energy target of 20% renewables by 2020, criticizing wind turbines as unsightly, noisy and damaging to human health, and reneging on election commitments to install one million solar rooftop systems.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has gained a reputation as a climate denier, though he has softened his language on the issue lately. Unfortunately, he has selected climate change deniers and skeptics to key government positions as business advisor and advisor on Australia's renewable energy policy.

Even before Australia's new pledge was announced, South Australian Environment Minister Ian Hunter said Australia needed to show greater leadership, after a grilling about emission reduction targets at a global climate change meeting in June: "Australia had a barrage of 36 questions directed at us from the rest of the world. ... We have a lot of questions to answer as a Commonwealth and the Federal Government has to really take the initiative that we used to have."

As countries head to Paris later this year to finalize an agreement for climate action after 2020, countries are looking to major players in all regions of the world for signs of ambitious action. Even as the Abbott government continues to stall on climate action, it is encouraging that subnational leaders are moving forward. The government of Victoria still expects to set its own renewable energy target and the Australian Capital Territory will continue with wind projects and aim for 90 percent renewable energy by 2020. As the Federal government struggles to adopt a sustainable long term climate policy, we can only hope that the state and territories will continue to show leadership in setting ambitious targets - and that sometime soon the Federal government will come up with more ambitious targets to match the initiative that local governments and citizens are demanding.

This blog includes contributions from Wusi Fan.