The Australian, Lenore Taylor and Matthew Franklin | June 25, 2008

COALITION frontbenchers are pushing for a delay in the introduction of emissions trading in a move that threatens bipartisan support for the main mechanism to cut greenhouse gases and tackle climate change.

With Labor committed to introducing emissions trading by 2010, several Opposition frontbenchers have told The Australian they favour a delay amid concerns about the potential economic costs of a carbon trading scheme.

But Opposition Treasury spokesman Malcolm Turnbull and climate change spokesman Greg Hunt insisted last night the Coalition would stick with its election commitment of supporting emissions trading by 2011.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd seized on doubts about the Opposition’s commitment to accuse it of reneging on its pre-election promise to support an emissions trading system.

Under an emissions trading system, polluters such as coal-fired power stations that cannot meet greenhouse gas reduction targets will be forced to buy carbon credits on an open market. This is expected to force the cost of services such as electricity and transport higher as companies adapt to the new environment.

While Climate Change Minister Penny Wong accused the Opposition of not knowing "if they are Arthur or Martha when it comes to climate change", the emerging debate with the Coalition will make the politics of implementing the Rudd Government’s emissions trading scheme more difficult if moves within the Coalition are successful.

Labor is committed to introducing emissions trading by 2010, while the Coalition went to last year’s federal election promising to have it operational by 2011 or 2012.

But several Opposition frontbenchers have told The Australian that timetable is under review and likely to be delayed as concerns mount within the Coalition about the potential economic costs of the scheme.

Others, including Mr Turnbull and Mr Hunt, insist a 2011-12 introduction date remains Coalition policy.

A spokesman for Brendan Nelson said the Coalition was waiting to see the report from the Government’s emissions trading advisor Ross Garnaut, due to be released next week, and "wasn’t putting a timetable on anything".

Conservationists are deeply concerned that an erosion of bipartisanship on emissions trading will weaken the Government’s resolve in implementing the reform which will come with substantial costs to both business and consumers.

After achieving political mileage by promising to cut 5c a litre from petrol prices, the Coalition has also advocated shielding drivers from the effects of a carbon price on petrol and the Government is now refusing to say whether transport will be included in its emissions trading scheme as initially promised.

Opposition resources spokesman David Johnston said yesterday it was "very likely" the 2011-12 date for introducing emissions trading would have to change. "We think the Government’s 2010 timetable is completely unrealistic and 2012 is also looking that way," he said.

"We think it’s going to take a lot longer. We are absolutely committed to using a market mechanism to reach the long-term goal, but we want a smooth transition governed by sound economics rather than ideology because if you hurry this thing it is a recipe for disaster."

Two other opposition frontbenchers have told The Australian the Coalition did not believe Australia should implement a trading regime ahead of its international economic competitors. Another said there was "a lot of push-back" against the policy the Coalition took to the election.

But Mr Turnbull said "we have made no change to the policy we took to the election and that was for an emissions trading scheme with a start date of 2011 or 2012".

And Mr Hunt said the Coalition "has not ruled out supporting 2010 if the Government can convince us that it is achievable and was not advocating any timetable beyond 2012".

The shape of the emerging political battle over climate change dominated yesterday’s political debate in Canberra.

The Opposition Leader, addressing a meeting of Liberal MPs, appeared to leave himself the option of opposing the trading scheme, by insisting that Australia must address the issue with its economic eyes open.

"Australia can’t solve climate change ourselves," Dr Nelson was reported by a spokesman to have said. "But we can do enormous damage to our own economy and the environment if we get it wrong."

Mr Rudd used question time to attack the Coalition for returning to its days of climate change scepticism. He said it had backed an emissions trading scheme before November’s election but was now reneging. "I say to those opposite that this should be a challenge which transcends politics. This is a challenge for the globe and for the nation which is so inter-generational in its scope that people should start working together on it."

Australian Industry Greenhouse Network chief executive Michael Hitchens said he could see no "process" reason for a delay. Climate Institute chief executive John Connor said he was "alarmed by the journey down the low road on climate politics that the Coalition appears to be taking".

Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Don Henry said delaying a scheme would hurt the economy as well as the environment.

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