On ABC’s Four Corners program last night, John Howard ran the familiar argument that Australia’s emissions, relative to those of the big looming emitters like China, are inconsequential.

He’s right – on the basic maths, anyway. Our emissions are well under 2% of the global total. China’s over 12% and growing fast. So the argument goes that we get to beg off climate duties because our cumulative emissions are small. But presumably other nations with similar or lower emissions are welcome to follow suit. If we sum up their emissions, the total is more than 25%. Thus precedent matters.

Of course it’s an absurd argument anyway because there’s no arbitrary level below which our moral responsibilities mysteriously evaporate. We can disconnect neither ourselves nor the consequences of our lifestyles from the atmosphere. Thus the only just means of apportioning responsibility to nations is via the measure of their per capita contributions. And on that league table, Australia occupies top spot (27 tons per person per year vs 3 for China).

What China’s people want is access to the same economic opportunities as us – something that we cannot by rights deny them, but that – pursued with the same carbon intensity as Australia’s historical economic development – would be ecologically catastrophic. This much Mr Howard might agree with (despite his scepticism of the ‘gloomier’ scientific predictions, which I or any number of my colleagues would be happy to sit down and discuss with him).

But why would China agree to reduce its emissions if the nations that have achieved their economic ascendancy via carbon intensive industrialisation refuse to do so? And why should an Australian citizen retain the right to pollute because she was perchance born in a (per capita) wealthy country with a small population? Mr Howard’s argument here would be that we DO need to reduce our emissions, but in simultaneous partnership with countries like China.

Certainly we need to work with China, but an act of political good faith is needed. Why should we move first? Because the stuff that’s up there helping to melt the Greenland ice sheet has the fingerprints of western industrialisation, and western lifestyles like ours, all over it. We lead into this mess, and we need to lead out.

Yes, Kyoto is ineffective, but it is in its infant stages. Perhaps Mr Howard was precocious enough to be power walking in a snazzy tracksuit right out of the womb, but this is generally not the way of things. And ultimately, if AP6 is to be so much more effective than Kyoto, there should be no problems committing to large, scientifically defensible reductions.

And to point the finger at China while selling them coal isn’t so much giving away the moral high ground as quarrying it out and exporting it. It’s about more than maths. It doesn’t matter that we’re generally politically marginal to world affairs (sorry Alexander, but we are) – when a nation the size of China needs permission, small nations might very well be irrelevant, but when they need an excuse (ie. for their high GHG emissions), we might be just the ticket.

So if the EPA should call up for a chat because your old beater belches blue smoke on cold mornings, act indignant. Tell them to take their business to Beijing where the real polluters are. If they argue further, refer them to the PM – he should be able to smooth things over.