Australian voters waved goodbye to Prime Minister John Howard, a conservative who, along with U.S. President George W. Bush, has steadfastly refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Both Bush and Howard have argued that the Kyoto Protocol is pointless because it doesn’t include developing nations such as China and India, which are also major polluters. The two leaders also have maintained that mandatory limits on greenhouse gases would create undue hardship for their national economies.
Howard’s replacement, Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd, has pledged to seek ratification of the Kyoto Protocol as soon as possible. President Bush promised during his first campaign to lower greenhouse gas emissions, but one of his first acts after taking office in 2001 was to declare that he would not seek Senate ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Since then, he has held firmly to that position, even as U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have increased year after year.
Bush Now Stands Alone in Opposition to Kyoto Protocol
The shift in Australia’s position on the Kyoto Protocol leaves President Bush and the United States as the only industrialized nation that has refused to ratify the treaty. This leaves the U.S. without any allies among developed nations in its opposition to cooperative international strategies to combat global warming. The change comes just before the next conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which will convene in Bali, December 3-14.
The purpose of the Bali conference is to create a framework for negotiations over the next two years that will lead to massive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2012 and establish support for poor countries that are expected to face the most serious effects of global warming.
“Current commitments from the industrialized world to fund mitigation and adaptation programs in the global South are grossly inadequate and based on voluntary 'charity' rather than real assessments of needs and attribution of responsibility," says Stephanie Long, International Climate Campaign Coordinator for Friends of the Earth. "Clearly, the industrialized world has profited significantly from over a century of producing greenhouse gas emissions that, perversely, will provide protection from climate change impacts.”
A total of 172 nations and government bodies have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which took effect on February 16, 2005. Thirty-six of those countries, plus the European Union, are required to strictly limit their emissions of six greenhouse gases. Even with Australia joining the effort, however, the Kyoto Protocol covers only about 30 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. China and the United States, the two largest polluters worldwide, account for about half of all emissions globally. But China is exempted and the U.S. still refuses to ratify the treaty. That is why the new international effort, which will begin in Bali next week, is so important.
While Rudd’s commitment to seek ratification of the Kyoto Protocol is not expected to change the U.S. position, it will put additional pressure on the United States and could make it harder for the Bush administration to persuade Canada and Japan to reconsider their Kyoto commitments because of the cost of meeting their targets by the 2012 deadline.
Cutting Greenhouse Gases More Easily Said Than Done
Rudd’s support of the Kyoto Protocol and international efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions is commendable, but achieving Australia’s emissions targets may present his government with a serious challenge. Reaching that goal will require new policies that mandate rigorous energy savings and increased use of renewable energy, policies that are likely to be expensive and quite possibly unpopular with voters.
While Australia accounts for less than 2 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, the nation has the highest per capita emissions in the world. Australia originally agreed to limit emissions to 8 percent above 1990 levels. As of 2005, the latest year for which figures are available, Australia’s emissions were 25.6 percent above the 1990 benchmark, according to the UNFCCC. Australia also exports a huge amount of coal, which contributes heavily to global warming.