As Australia moves slowly toward following Europe with an emissions trading scheme, motor industry lobbyists are already preparing to delay a second stage of proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that have just been proposed by the European Commission.

In the House of Representatives yesterday, Prime Minister John Howard tabled an issues paper arguing that emissions trading is a “more flexible, market-based policy tool than imposing a carbon tax on industry.” A few hours later in Brussels the EC proposed binding rules that would force car manufacturers to produce vehicles that would emit less carbon dioxide.

The Financial Times reports that by 2012 the average new car in the European Union will have to emit no more than 120g of carbon per kilometre, down from 161g at present, if the measures are approved by EU governments. The proposals were watered down after fierce lobbying from carmakers, who say the move will add thousands of euros to the price of a vehicle and cost jobs. The European Commission says the change is essential to hit the EU’s targets for reducing emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.

Politicians in Australia’s major Coalition and Labor parties will be dreading that the climate change debate here moves to motor vehicle emissions, because the six cylinder engines of the most popular cars like the Commodore and the Falcon spew out well over 200 grams per kilometer. The Brussels plan is creating an uproar in Germany, where standard Mercedes and BMW models produce above 250 grams, with the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel backtracking quickly on promises made as recently as last month that the environment would be one of her priorities.

A debate about introducing mandatory targets on the motor vehicle industry will be a perfect vehicle for Greens Leader Bob Brown to reclaim dominance in the environmental debate. As Howard and Kevin Rudd swap words over what should be the nature of an emissions trading scheme that most voters will not understand, the Greens can point out the hypocrisy of both their positions when they fail to do anything to make cars more environmentally friendly. Both leaders will be too scared to tackle the issue because opinion poll after opinion poll has shown the love affair with big cars and gas guzzling four wheel drives. A politician seeking majority support would attack them at his peril.

Bob Brown has the luxury of not needing majority support. He can win by appealing to a concerned minority and he will surely do so.