Australia’s Parliament defeated legislation to set up a greenhouse gas emissions trading system today, throwing a central plank of the government’s plans to combat global warming into disarray.
The Senate, where Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s government does not hold a majority, rejected his administration’s proposal for Australia to become one of the first countries to install a so-called cap-and-trade system to slash the amount of heat-trapping pollution that industries pump into the air.
The 41-33 vote followed a tumultuous debate in which the conservative main opposition party at first agreed to support a version of the government’s bill, then dramatically dumped its leader and switched sides after bitter divisions erupted within the party.
The new leader, Tony Abbott, said Australia should not adopt an emissions trading system before the rest of the world.
“The right time, if ever, to have an ETS is if and when it becomes part of the international trading system and that is not going to happen prior to its adoption in America,” he told reporters after the vote.
Mr Rudd had wanted the legislation passed before he attends next week’s UN summit on climate change in Copenhagen so he could portray Australia as a world leader on the issue.
He discussed the issue with President Barack Obama this week during a visit to the White House from which he was still returning today.
Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the government would reintroduce the bill in February to give the opposition a last chance to overcome its divisions and support the plan.
Mr Rudd could use the failure of the bill to call early elections, but is unlikely to do so before next year, when elections are due anyway.
Australia is a small greenhouse gas polluter in global terms, but one of the worst per capita because it relies heavily for its electricity on its abundant reserves of coal, which also make it the world’s largest exporter of the polluting fuel.
As the driest continent after Antarctica, it is also considered one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change.