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Australia Rejects Carbon Cap: Good News for Copenhagen?

The debate over climate-change legislation in Australia has been a tangled and raucous tale, and it culminated yesterday with the Senate finally voting down Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's plan for a cap-and-trade system. The 41-33 vote against came shortly after the opposition Liberals ousted their pro-cap leader for arch-conservative Tony Abbott.

This is the second time Australia's parliament has voted against a carbon cap, and under law, that means the prime minister can call for a "snap election" to reshuffle the legislature. Rudd's decided against that, however, and has said he'll introduce the bill a third time in February. Yet Abbott still rejects the idea of any price on carbon, preferring instead to cut emissions directly through planned land management and energy-efficiency measures (the proposed alternative is still vague, but wouldn’t it be ironic if conservatives found themselves backing a command-and-control approach to climate change mitigation?)

This sounds like terrible news for the Copenhagen climate talks—here's a major emitter balking at any sort of curb on greenhouse gases. But there's a more optimistic way to look at this news. Abbott's main beef with capping carbon, after all, is that the rest of the world hasn't taken action, so acting alone would put Australia's businesses—especially its massive coal industry—at a disadvantage. As Abbott told reporters after the vote, "The right time for an emissions trading scheme is when the rest of the world is signed up for one." But this sort of argument could give the global talks a push forward—Rudd can plausibly claim that a global deal will help Australia follow through. After all, polls show the Australian public wants action on climate change, so if the opposition loses its primary excuse for blocking action, they won't have much to fall back on.