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We've got "breathing space" on climate: Garnaut

By Cathy Alexander
03 Mar 2009 7:41 PM

CANBERRA, March 3 AAP - The economic crisis has bought Australia at least two years of "breathing space" in the fight against climate change, according to climate adviser Ross Garnaut.

The crisis has clamped down on industry and production, which has put a lid on greenhouse gas emissions.

Australia's emissions have been rising every year, but are now some years behind predictions because of the financial meltdown.

"At this stage it looks like we've transferred two years ... it might turn out to be longer than that if this turns out to be an even worse economic crisis," Prof Garnaut told an agriculture conference in Canberra on Tuesday evening.

"We've got a little bit of breathing space."

"But we need it, because the world's a long way behind where it needs to be."

Emissions trading is due to start next year; business groups are pushing for a delay because of the crisis.

Prof Garnaut, an economist who advised the federal and state governments on climate change, did not comment directly on whether the scheme should be delayed.

But he said it was important that the scheme was bedded down soon, and reiterated his case that humankind must act on global warming.

As the slowing domestic economy fuels jitters about emissions trading, Prof Garnaut sent an optimistic message: this is the hardest part.

He said it was likely the science on climate change would get worse, which would spur on efforts to tackle the problem and more ambitious targets to cut emissions.

And once schemes to cut emissions started to work, it would all get easier.

"I expect that once we get effective market-based emissions regimes in place, confidence will grow that we can reduce emissions a lot without ending economic growth," Prof Garnaut said.

"There's lots of nervousness about that at this time."

He has stuck to his argument that in starting emissions trading, Australia is not going out too hard, too early.

"It's not true that as many Australians pretend, that we're about to do something that no-one else is doing, that we're way out in front of the pack. We're not."

"I think greater honesty and realism about the international context would do quite a lot of good for the discussion."

There has been debate recently on the merits of a carbon tax instead of emissions trading. Prof Garnaut said he preferred emissions trading because countries could link up their schemes and provide incentives to developing countries to get involved.

Prof Garnaut was speaking to ABARE's Outlook conference.