Australia passes landmark carbon price laws despite bitter division

By James Grubel ,Reuters

CANBERRA — Australia passed landmark laws on Tuesday to impose a price on carbon emissions in one of the biggest economic reforms in a decade and injecting new impetus into December’s global climate talks in South Africa. Tuesday’s vote in the upper house Senate made Australia the second major economy behind the European Union to pass carbon-limiting legislation. Australia’s tiny neighbor New Zealand has a similar scheme. Its impact will be felt right across the economy, from miners and liquefied natural gas (LNG) producers to airlines and steel makers, and is aimed at making firms more energy efficient and push power generation towards gas and renewables. The vote is a major victory for embattled Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who staked her political future on what will be the most comprehensive carbon price scheme outside of Europe, despite deep hostility from voters and the political opposition. “Today Australia has a price on carbon as the law of our land. This comes after a quarter of a century of scientific warnings, 37 parliamentary inquiries, and years of bitter debate and division,” Gillard told reporters in Canberra. Australia has spent more than a decade debating the issue, which was instrumental in the 2007 fall of former conservative prime minister John Howard and Labor’s Kevin Rudd in 2010. Opposition leader Tony Abbott has sworn a “blood oath” to repeal the laws if he wins power in 2013. Australia accounts for just 1.5 percent of global emissions, but is the developed world’s highest emitter per capita due to a reliance on coal to generate electricity. The legislation is being watched closely by others considering similar plans to cap carbon emissions, which are blamed for fuelling climate change. In the United States, California starts its scheme in 2013, while China and South Korea are also working on carbon trading programs. India has a coal tax, while South Africa plans to place carbon caps on its top polluters. The scheme is a central plank in the government’s fight against climate change and aims to halt the growth of the country’s growing greenhouse gas emissions from a resources-led boom and age-old reliance on coal-fired power stations. It sets a fixed carbon tax of AU$23 (US$23.78) a ton on the top 500 polluters from July 2012, then moves to an emissions trading scheme from July 2015. Companies involved will need a permit for every ton of carbon they emit. Australia’s carbon market is forecast to be worth as much as AU$15 billion (US$15.5 billion) by 2015, with sale of permits to raise AU$25 billion in the first four years. Passage of the carbon price laws is expected to ensure the global market continues to expand over the next few years. The World Bank estimated the global carbon market was worth about US$142 billion in 2010, with the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme accounting for 97 percent of trade.