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Sunday best

Good news — Australia's politicians have rediscovered climate change.

Some called it Carbon Sunday; others called it world-leading; yet others called it something much ruder. Either way, last weekend Australia took a bold step forward, announcing a package of measures to tackle the country's disproportionately high greenhouse-gas emissions.

At the heart of the package is a levy on carbon, which will be applied to emissions from the nation's 500 largest polluters. The package, of course, does not come close to cutting emissions by the amount required to head off the worst of global warming — but then, do any concrete political measures announced so far do that?

By such dismal reckoning, it would be easy to dismiss the Australian effort as weak — a mere drop in the ocean — and critics are already doing so. But the package deserves a more sympathetic and considered response. The policy breaks new ground, moves in the correct direction and comes at a welcome time, given how climate change has plummeted down the international political agenda over the past year or so.

The plan, announced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard on 10 July, will see the country's biggest emitters pay a levy of Aus$23 (US$25) on each tonne of carbon dioxide that they send into the atmosphere. The price will increase above inflation for 3–5 years, after which the strategy will grow into a broader emissions-trading scheme. Gillard said that by 2020, the move would reduce emissions to 5% below levels seen in 2000 — an overall saving of some 160 million tonnes of carbon. Alongside this introduction of a carbon tax, Gillard increased Australia's long-term emissions target from a 60% cut below 2000 levels by 2050 to an 80% cut. And she pledged Aus$10 billion to develop renewable energy.

Less than a year ago, climate change was too hot for Australian politicians. Despite opinion polls that showed strong public support for policies to address greenhouse-gas emissions, both the Liberal and Labor parties installed leaders who promised to do less — in fact, before the election last August, Gillard, leader of the Australian Labor Party, had specifically promised not to introduce a carbon tax. But when the votes pushed Labor into a coalition with the Australian Greens and independent members of parliament, the party had to promise its partners that it would embrace a fresh approach to climate change. That compromise produced the weekend's announcement. If policies to restrict emissions can undergo such a resurrection in Australia, they can in other places, too.

Australia's example also gives encouraging signs that climate policies need no longer be proposed by government environment departments, only to be fought against by treasury colleagues who control finances. The Australian action on carbon emissions comes alongside broader reforms of the country's tax system, partly to help ease the burden on citizens affected by the hikes in energy price that are anticipated as a result of the carbon levy. Some of the proceeds from the levy will also be intelligently rechannelled back to the industries affected, to help them adjust to and invest in clean energy. That is the way for a government to hush complaints that action on global warming is being used to raise general tax revenue.

It is far from clear that Gillard's grand plan will be realized. Tony Abbott, leader of the opposition and a professed climate sceptic, has already promised to scrap the scheme, should he win power in the general election set to take place in 2013. He has vowed to make the vote a referendum on the new tax, so we might not have seen the final Carbon Sunday. Still, welcome back, Australia.

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Sunday best. Nature 475, 140 (2011).

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