Australia on Monday submitted a modest emissions-reduction pledge to the United Nations negotiating body on climate change. It was met by a disparaging chorus of critics who said it did not shoulder a fair load in the world's struggle to keep global warming within safe limits.
Australia, a leading producer of coal with an unusually high per-capita output of carbon dioxide, has been viewed as a laggard in the climate fight for decades, especially since its government reversed course and abandoned a tax on carbon last year.
It now says it will reduce emissions 26 to 28 percent below the levels of 2005 by 2030, a rate of reduction that is less than promised by most leading industrial nations.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who led the charge to end the carbon tax, sought to defend what was widely derided as a half-hearted effort. He was quoted by the Guardian as saying, "It's better than Japan. It's almost the same as New Zealand. It's a whisker below Canada. It's a little below Europe. It's about the same as the United States. It's vastly better than Korea. Of course, it is unimaginably better than China."
But climate experts, noting that each nation ought to be striving to meet ambitious targets given their own particular circumstances, said Australia owes the world much more.
The Climate Council, an Australian policy group, said in a detailed fact sheet that Australia's goals "simply don't represent a fair contribution to the world effort to bring climate change under control."
Australia would also be cutting back more slowly than most. Europe's cuts are much deeper, and U.S. emissions would drop much more quickly, according to their pledges. Australia's goals are even weaker than Canada's, another straggler.
"Other countries will have to pick up Australia's slack to tackle climate change -- including many developing countries with fewer resources," said David Waskow, international climate director with the World Resources Institute.
Tony de Brum, foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, put it even more bluntly in a scathing statement.
"If the rest of the world followed Australia's lead, the Great Barrier Reef would disappear," he said. "So would my country, and the other vulnerable atoll nations on Australia's doorstep."
Some Australian newspaper pundits were nearly as harsh.
The goal "looks like it has been based largely on what the government thinks is the minimum it can get away with in the international community and among the Australian public," wrote Tom Arup, environment editor of The Age. "But it falls short on three key measures: the science, the pace of international action and what can technically be achieved."
Laura Tingle, political editor of the Financial Review, chimed in: "As the Abbott Government seemingly unravels before our eyes, the Prime Minister has released a climate policy which must be the dodgiest bit of public policy in years."
Writing on ABC's The Drum blog, University of Melbourne economist Warwick Smith explored another common criticism of the Abbott policy: by choosing approaches other than a price on carbon to attack climate change, the government is wasting money and falling short of its emissions targets. He cited evidence that the nation could be achieving much more ambitious goals at little additional economic cost – although the deeper the cuts, the harder its coal industry would be hurt.
"It is clear that this low commitment is purely about protecting Tony Abbott's beloved coal industry at everyone else's expense," he wrote. "The sad news for Tony Abbott is that no matter what he does, the coal industry is living on borrowed time."