Australia's greenhouse gas emissions have started creeping up again after a dip caused by the global financial crisis, a trend that would see the nation overshoot its Copenhagen Accord commitment by a large margin.
Emissions fell last year by 2.4 per cent on 2008 levels as steel and aluminium production was hit by the financial crisis, but began rising again in the last few months of the year.
The country generated an estimated 537 tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2009, the largest amount per person of any developed country, three-quarters of which came from the energy sector.
The federal government said yesterday that Australia remains on track to meet its emissions target under the Kyoto Protocol.
But that target allows for an increase of 8 per cent on its 1990 level - an unusual allowance which means that, so far, the nation has had to do less work on reducing carbon dioxide output than most other countries.
A significant reduction in land clearing, particularly in Queensland, has allowed Australia to meet the Kyoto goal.
''We know that a price on carbon will be necessary to meet our targets and to reverse the climbing trend of emissions growth,''' the Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, said in a statement. ''We remain committed to the carbon pollution reduction scheme as the most effective and cheapest way of meeting our targets.''
The government recently postponed its scheme until 2013 at the earliest after failing to get it through the Senate.
The head of the Department of Climate Change, Martin Parkinson, told a Senate estimates committee hearing yesterday that either an emissions trading scheme, which would require heavy polluters to pay for each tonne of greenhouse gas they release, or some form of carbon tax was essential to bring emissions under control.
''If you're asking the question, can Australia meet even its 5 per cent target without the introduction of a carbon price, the answer is no,'' Dr Parkinson said.
Australia has pledged to cut its emissions by between 5 and 25 per cent over the next 10 years, with the minimum target endorsed by both major parties. In theory, Australia could meet a large portion of its target by buying carbon offsets overseas, but this would be costly and would transfer the cost of actually cutting Australian emissions to a later date, when it is likely to be more expensive. ''The longer you delay, the more international units you have to purchase, or the higher the domestic cost,'' Dr Parkinson said.
The national emissions report shows that Australia's economic strength is still tightly shackled to ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions, because most of the country's energy is produced by burning coal.
About 37 per cent of the country's total emissions came from power stations, although a slight shift in the use of gas instead of coal as a fuel meant the trajectory of rising emissions has levelled off a little.
''Our economy currently relies on a polluting foundation and without policies to make polluting companies responsible for the damage they cause, and to make clean energy cheaper, Australia will continue to fall behind other countries that are building low pollution economies,'' said Erwin Jackson, the deputy chief executive of The Climate Institute.
Green groups said that with the postponement of the emissions trading scheme, neither of the major political parties had a plan to reverse the rising trajectory of emissions.
''We all know what we've got to do but at the moment we don't seem to have the political will to do it,'' said the executive director of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Don Henry.
''We urgently need to put a price on carbon.''