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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 December 2007, 00:12 GMT
Australian climate policy in from the cold
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Kevin Rudd being sworn in as prime minister
Within hours of being sworn in, Mr Rudd signed up to Kyoto
Midway through Australia's election campaign, Sydney's influential tabloid, the Daily Telegraph, decided to carry out a pop quiz gauging public opinion on the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

It is an issue which, on certain days, had come to dominate the national debate.

Some Sydneysiders apparently thought Kyoto was a Japanese delicacy, the type of dish that might crawl past them on a sushi train.

Some suspected it may have been the treaty which brought to an end the war in the Pacific.

Perhaps if they probed further they might even have discovered some poor soul who thought it was the rock band which Peter Garrett, the new environment minister, used to gyrate in front of. Or, better still, a Japanese basketball team.

Even the more serious-minded and well-informed would struggle to outline the main points of Kyoto - I know I certainly would.

But it became emblematic, a simple litmus test.

Sushi in Japan
Some Australians thought Kyoto was a Japanese delicacy
If you were pro-Kyoto, then you were green-friendly. If you were anti-Kyoto, as the former Prime Minister John Howard famously was, then you were a climate change dinosaur.

For Labor leader Kevin Rudd, it became a trademark issue. By calling for the ratification of Kyoto, he was offering proof that he was a man of the digital age and John Howard was determinedly "black and white television", as he once observed.

It therefore came as no surprise that Mr Rudd's first official act as prime minister was to sign the paperwork paving the way for the ratification of Kyoto.

By so doing, he signalled a definitive break from the past. Neat and politically simple.

When his actions were announced by the head of the Australian delegation, the news drew spontaneous applause from the UN conference on climate change.

Afterwards, Australian delegates spoke of how diplomats from other countries actually approached them in the corridors, rather than hurrying past with their heads down.

With a stroke of a prime ministerial pen, the country's pariah status in green diplomatic circles had come to an end.

Economic impact

What the new government is less likely to advertise is how its negotiating stance on the post-Kyoto framework - the protocol becomes obsolete in 2012 - is very Howardesque.

As the Labor leader conceded during the campaign, a Rudd government would not sign up to a post-Kyoto global treaty that did not include China and India. It was the omission of these emitters that Mr Howard commonly cited as the main deficiency of Kyoto.

For us, not ratifying was never an issue about cost
Mitch Hooke, Chief Executive of the Minerals Council of Australia

The other main strands of thought behind Mr Howard's refusal to ratify - despite his initial and often forgotten enthusiasm for the protocol - was the need to support the Bush administration, his own scepticism about climate change and his fears that it would damage the domestic economy. Australia is the world's biggest exporter of coal.

Just listen to the response from the Minerals Council of Australia, the lobby group which represents companies that produce more than 85% of the country's mineral output.

"For us, not ratifying was never an issue about cost," noted its chief executive Mitch Hooke. "It was all about whether or not [Kyoto] could actually effect real outcomes... There's no point in running Australia's economy into the ground for a target that is just fanciful."

The Rudd government will argue that, rather than running the Australian economy into the ground, a forward-thinking approach to climate change will actually help deliver further growth.

That was one of the main arguments of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, which was prepared by the British government economist Sir Nicholas Stern.

Sheep feed on a dry paddock near Grenfell in the central west of New South Wales , 12th Nov
Australia is already feeling the effects of climate change
Helpfully for the incoming government, its move to ratify Kyoto coincided with a new report from the Climate Institute, which concluded that: "making very substantial reductions in Australia's net greenhouse emissions is affordable, and compatible with continuing growth in incomes, employment and living standards."

If the country managed to reverse its rising pollution by 2012, reduced emissions by 20% by 2020 and became carbon neutral by mid-century, the report's authors predicted that the economy would grow at 2.8% annually, as compared to 2.9% with no action on climate change - in other words, just a 0.1% reduction in GDP growth.

But they also argued that the number of jobs would increase from 9.7m to 16.7m by 2050.

Close to home

Few would dispute that Australia is particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change, and already feeling its effects.

Though there is no scientific consensus that "the Big Dry" presently being experienced by the country's farmers - the worst in 100 years - is the product of global warming, it does seem certain that droughts will become more common and more severe if climate change goes unchecked.

Similarly, Australians are already used to strict water restrictions, even if this stems in part from a nationwide aversion to drinking recycled water and local opposition to littering the coast with desalination plants.

Pejar Dam, Australia
This is the worst drought in Australia for 100 years
For the multi-billion dollar tourism industry, climate change is an existential threat. Not only are travellers worried about their carbon footprint in travelling half the way around the planet to visit these shores, but the attractions which lured them here in the first place, such as the Great Barrier Reef, face extinction.

Certainly, there has been a sea-change in the country's concerns and preoccupations, and I offer a crude example.

When I first travelled to Australia about 10 years ago, I turned on the television in my hotel room in Fremantle, Western Australia, and was amazed and amused to discover that the first three stories concerned the beach.

Last night, on ABC's Lateline programme, the first six stories focused on climate change.

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