Claims that even small greenhouse gas targets will hurt big industry have been undermined by a government report that found basic efficiency improvements could cut national emissions while saving businesses more than $700 million.
An assessment of 199 large energy users found boosting efficiency could save at least 6.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide - equivalent to a 1.1 per cent cut in the annual national carbon footprint.
The energy savings could run 1.4 million homes for a year and give the companies an extra $736 million.
Industry group the Energy Efficiency Council said it suggested a 15 per cent efficiency gain by the biggest companies would cut national emissions by nearly 5 per cent and save billions in energy costs.
''Economic purists have been telling us that if there were $100 notes lying around, industry would have already picked them up,'' council chief executive Rob Murray-Leach said.
''This report shows that companies have blind spots - sometimes you have to help them find the $100 notes.''
Though often overlooked in the policy debate, energy efficiency is widely understood to be the easiest and cheapest way to make quick emissions cuts.
The Paris-based International Energy Agency estimates 65 per cent of the global emissions cut achieved by 2020 will be through efficiency upgrades.
Mr Murray-Leach, a former adviser to climate economist Ross Garnaut, said energy efficiency should be viewed in the same way as other business investments: you need to spend up-front to generate a return.
''Some people say that tackling climate change is too expensive, we should wait to see what the world does first,'' he said. ''This report shows that there is a huge amount we could do right now to cut our emissions and grow our economy.''
The government's First Opportunities report is the result of a 2006 program introduced by the Howard government that requires companies that use more than 0.5 petajoules of energy a year to find, but not necessarily implement, potential savings. The report said businesses had shown they were willing to implement the savings because of the commercial benefits.
It is an initial insight only: the report looks at 57 per cent of operations where energy savings may be possible. The biggest savings were found to be possible in large energy-using industries - metals, manufacturing and mining.
Energy Minister Martin Ferguson said the report showed Australia's largest energy users had already made changes that would save them more than $500 million a year.
The report found existing commitments by businesses would cut annual carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 4 million tonnes. As companies were still assessing their energy use, more savings would be identified.