SYDNEY (Reuters) - Conservative Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Tuesday said the country would cut its greenhouse gas emissions ahead of negotiations on a global climate deal in Paris at the end of the year.
The world's largest exporter of coal and iron ore will cut emissions by 26 per cent to 28 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030, Mr Abbott said, a target that will be submitted as part of negotiations on the global climate deal.
"We have got to be environmentally responsible, but we've got to be economically responsible too. We've got to reduce our emissions but we've got to reduce our emissions in ways which are consistent with continued strong growth," Mr Abbott told reporters.
"The last thing we want to do is strengthen the environment and at the same time damage our economy."
Australia is one of the largest carbon emitters on a per capita basis due to its reliance on coal-fired power plants, and critics say the move will do little to bring it in line with ambitious targets set by the United States and European Union.
Mr Abbott, who has resisted environmental regulations that he says could endanger economic growth, is already facing criticism for his strong support for the coal industry and for scrapping an ambitious carbon tax and emissions trading plan last year.
Australia is currently aiming to reduce emissions by 5 per cent by 2020, based on the level of emissions in 2000.
Critics accused Mr Abbott of gaming the system by choosing 2005 instead of 2000 for the new benchmark. 2005 was an historically high year for emissions.
The government's independent expert body, the Climate Change Authority, said last month that Australia needed to reduce emissions by 40 per cent to 60 per cent of 2000 levels by 2030 if it was going to meet an international agreement to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.
The new target was out of step with the independent expert, targets set by other developed economies and the international consensus, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) said.
"It's a defeatist target that shows no faith in the ability of Australians to adapt, innovate and make the transition to a clean economy," ACF head Kelly O'Shanassy said in a statement.
A poll released last week by the Climate Institute think-tank showed 63 per cent of Australians wanted more action on climate change, up six percentage points from 2014.
Australia's main opposition Labor Party has seized on the shift in public opinion, pledging last month to reinstate the emissions trading scheme and raise the level of energy generated by renewable sources to 50 per cent by 2030.
"Tony Abbott is stuck in the 19th century economy and he is robbing this country of its potential," opposition Greens Party Senator Larrisa Waters said in a statement.
The announcement sparked strong criticism from environmental groups and opposition politicians, who said that the target lagged far behind those announced by other advanced economies.
Mr Abbott's Cabinet agreed on the target in a meeting overnight, The Australian newspaper reported, citing unnamed sources. The level is far below recommendations by its own Climate Change Authority.
The Cabinet room decision was put to the wider party room of the ruling conservative Liberal and National Party coalition on Tuesday.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said the government wanted policies that would not harm Australia's economic growth.
"It is very important for us to make a strong and responsible contribution to global efforts to reduce emissions, but one which does not detract from our economic prosperity moving forward," Mr Cormann said.
Mr Abbott is a strong supporter of the coal industry and last year scrapped a carbon tax and an emissions trading plan, arguing they would burden industry.
The Australian leader has also cut the country's renewable energy target and abolished the Climate Commission, a body to provide public information on the effects of global warming.
Last month, he came under fire from the opposition and investors after ordering the government's A$10 billion (S$10.2 billion) Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) to stop investing in wind and solar power.
The Climate Change Authority said last month that Australia needed to reduce emissions by 40 per cent to 60 per cent by 2030, based on the level of emissions from the year 2000, if it was going to meet an international agreement to limit global warming to 2 deg C over pre-industrial levels.