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Australia accused of lagging behind wealthy countries with greenhouse-gas reduction target

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CANBERRA, Australia — Australia has been criticized over its new greenhouse-gas reduction target which lags behind the ambitions of most wealthy countries.

Lawmakers in Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative government on Tuesday agreed on a target of curbing carbon gas emissions to at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The target could go as high as 28 percent, Abbott said.

"This is fairly and squarely in the middle of comparable economies," Abbott told reporters.

The target scales back a draft proposal to reduce Australian greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in that period.

The U.S. has pledged to cut overall emissions 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025, compared to 2005.

The European Union has pledged a reduction of 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030.

Australia's target "undoubtedly puts Australia well toward the back of the pack, really at the bottom end of all the developed economies and we start from a very high polluting point," Mark Butler, opposition spokesman on climate change, told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

"We are the highest polluters per head of population in the OECD, so we do have a substantial amount of work to do," Butler said.

Australia's commitment to global cooperation on tackling climate change has come under question since Abbott's government was elected in 2013. Last year, Australia repealed a three-year-old carbon tax on the nation's worst greenhouse-gas polluters.

In June, the government reduced its Renewable Energy Target — a policy to ensure a minimum amount of Australia's electricity comes from renewable sources by 2020 — from a legislated 41,000 gigawatt hours minimum to 33,000 gigawatt hours.

Abbott announced on Tuesday he would not attend a United Nations climate summit in Paris in December when world leaders will attempt to forge a new global agreement on reducing emissions after 2020. Australia will be represented by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

Australia is one of the world's worst greenhouse gas emitters per head of population because of its heavy reliance on abundant reserves of cheap coal to generate power. Critics argue that the economic importance of the coal industry explains why Abbott opposes wind turbines on the Australian landscape.

Meena Raman, a negotiator at the Malaysia-based Third World Network, which links activists and analysts from developing countries to follow U.N. processes, said Australia's weak target undermined confidence in the outcome of the Paris summit.

"A proposal this weak suggests that the Australian government wants to see the Paris conference fail to deliver the fair and necessary agreement we need," she said in a statement.

Prof. Steven Sherwood, director of the Climate Change Research Center at University of New South Wales, described the target as "weak enough to reinforce Australia's new reputation as the world's foot-dragger."

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