Many Australians view PNG as a nation propped up by Australian aid dollars, but in last night’s curtain-raiser to today’s release of his interim report, Professor Ross Garnaut highlighted the nation could come to our rescue as we look for massive, low cost carbon abatement.

Garnaut told an Adelaide public forum that Australia should explore a regional trading scheme involving PNG (first up) and Indonesia – both of which have massive greenhouse gas emissions due in large part to deforestation.

The bold proposal is particularly significant because of two other statements made last night by Garnaut.

One was his call for Australia to show it would be ready to make cuts greater than 60% by 2050 if negotiators broker a truly effective global agreement involving all major developing countries.

The other was his response to a question in which he indicated “contraction and convergence” – the concept of equal per capita emission entitlements – will play a key role in determining how nations share the global burden of reducing carbon emissions.

Developing countries are unlikely to commit to a deal that “doesn’t emphasise this”, he said.

But a tougher target and burden-sharing involving some form of equal per capita emissions entitlements would pose an extraordinary challenge for Australia without access to some very cheap abatement – like the sort you can potentially get from avoided deforestation. Garnaut said he has no views at this stage on the detail of what any regional trading scheme involving Australia and its northern neighbours should look like.

But he made it clear in the Q & A that he means much more than just project-based investment in PNG of the type encouraged through the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism.

Garnaut wants Australia to approach both countries – starting with PNG – seeking their participation in some form of scheme involving their acceptance of binding national abatement targets.

“Developing country adoption of national targets and participation in a regional trading scheme … would be a world first and would have substantial demonstration impact,” he said.

“In addition to large gains through emission reductions, it could help generate momentum towards the adoption of binding targets by developing countries by demonstrating that it could be in their financial interests to do so.”

Garnaut pointed out Indonesia’s annual emissions – three quarters of which are thought to be related to deforestation — are estimated to be about five times Australia’s. Papua New Guinea’s forestry-related emissions might exceed a quarter of Australia’s total CO2 emissions, he said.

The prospect of pushing for such a scheme will no doubt seem foolhardy to some. But it shows no-one can accuse Garnaut of not being able to see the wood for the trees.