Surely it must be some sort of record? I am, of course, talking about how quickly Kevin Rudd, Australia’s brand new prime minister, set the wheels in motion for Australia to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Within hours of his inauguration on Monday, 3 December Rudd had signed the documentation for the ratification. The upshot of this is that Australia will become a full member of the Kyoto Protocol by March next year, with a target to limit the growth in its emissions to an eight per cent increase above 1990 levels over the period from 2008-2012.

This is something his predecessor, John Howard, resolutely refused to do, saying, on more than one occasion, that ratifying the protocol would cost jobs and damage Australian industry. However, that same industry no longer believes this is true. Bob Welsh, chairman of the Investor Group on Climate Change, said business had moved past the debate that global warming was just an environmental concern and had recognized the economic benefits for quick action. Australia’s major energy retailers have also backed Rudd’s Kyoto commitment. Richard McIndoe, managing director of TRUenergy, said he believed that ratifying Kyoto could present some opportunities for his company, in terms of better utilizing our trading capabilities. “As a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, we could expand our trading activities currently in gas and electricity to include carbon.” While a spokesman from Origin Energy said ratifying Kyoto would give Australian companies access to the Clean Development Mechanism, which would, “monetize the environmental value of projects [business] undertakes in developing countries”.

The move, however, is largely symbolic – some might say an example of ‘greenwash’. This is because Australia is one of the few countries in the developed world likely to meet its targets under the treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Having said that, Rudd has not stopped there. He has pledged to set a target to reduce emissions by 60 per cent based on 2000 levels by 2050, establish a national emissions trading scheme by 2010 and set a 20 per cent target for renewable energy by 2020 through major expansions of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

As we were going to press, Rudd was heading over to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, where the successor to Kyoto is to be discussed. He goes to Indonesia already committed to the 60 per cent by 2050 target. However, environmental pressure group Greenpeace wants the new Labour government to follow the European Union’s example and commit to cuts in carbon dioxide emissions of at least 30 per cent by 2020. But he will be aware that any – shorter term commitments he makes will be subjected to intense scrutiny by the country’s powerful coal mining lobby.

What are the wider implications of Australia’s new stance on Kyoto? The most notable one is that it isolates the US as the only developed nation not to have ratified the treaty. But the White House under President George W. Bush continues to show no sign that its isolation is a matter of concern. Commenting on Australia’s announcement, Harlan Watson, the US delegation’s chief negotiator, said the US felt no pressure to follow it, and that “it is up to each country to decide how to move forward”. Although the US has now agreed to discussions on a post-2012 framework, it remains strongly opposed to some elements of a new agreement that other countries see as essential, such as mandatory emissions reductions targets for developed countries, preferring voluntary cuts and incentives for technological innovation.

Somewhat ironically, at the end of November the Energy Information Administration released figures that showed US carbon emissions fell 1.5 per cent last year in spite of solid economic growth, putting it ahead of its goal, set in 2002, to reduce greenhouse gas intensity by 18 per cent by 2012. A mild winter and the loss of some industrial production accounts for much of this fall.

Maybe as the old adage goes, it’ll all come out in the wash.

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Best regards,
Heather Johnstone
Senior Editor