The Sydney Morning Herald

By Peter Hannam

The Obama administration will closely monitor how nations such as Australia tackle climate change, as the US President makes greenhouse gas emission cuts one of his signature policies, according to the White House's former top climate adviser.

Heather Zichal, who worked with Barack Obama from his 2008 election campaign until late last year when she resigned as chief climate and energy adviser, said the president viewed action to curb global warming as ''key to his legacy in his second term''.

''The administration will be watching closely to see what other countries are doing to act and what they will be bringing to the table in Paris,'' Ms Zichal said, referring to the 2015 climate summit planned for the French capital.

In her first interview with non-US media since leaving the White House last November, she said Mr Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry would keep ''a very constant drumbeat on [climate] issues in the weeks and years ahead''.

Mr Kerry last month used a visit to Indonesia to call on nations to slash greenhouse gas emissions that are blamed for warming up the planet. ''In a sense, climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction,'' he was reported as saying.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has made known his doubts climate change is behind recent extreme events such as last spring's early-season bushfires or the drought that has prompted Queensland to declare a record 80 per cent of the state to be in drought.

Nevertheless, the government says it is committed to cutting Australia's emissions by 5 per cent of 2000 levels by 2020, compared with a 17 per cent target by the US on 2005 levels by decade's end.

While not privy to Mr Obama's view on the Mr Abbott's promise to eliminate the carbon tax, Ms Zichal said governments around the world could expect the US to push a climate change agenda.

''This is an area where the US can and should lead,'' she said. ''The Secretary of State and the President take this challenge seriously and will be working on a number of levels to engage the international community on this threat.''

A spokesman for Environment Minister Greg Hunt defended Australia's actions, including the use of a $1.55 billion emissions reduction fund to replace a price on carbon. ''Unlike the carbon tax, [the fund] will assist in achieving this objective without the damaging cost to business and households,'' he said.

''The 5 per cent target represents a substantial effort and either exceeds or is comparable with most other advanced economies,'' the spokesman said.

The government last week failed again in the Senate to overcome opposition from Labor and the Greens to its package of bills to repeal the carbon price.

Labor says the country is at odds with major partners, which are planning to step up efforts to cut emissions. ''Australia is continually being embarrassed on a global stage by Tony Abbott's ideological attack on Australia's future,'' Labor climate change spokesman Mark Butler said recently.

Ms Zichal will discuss energy efficiency at the 2XEP Forum on Doubling Energy Productivity at the University Technology Sydney on April 3-4.

This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald