The question for Bali and beyond is: with leadership like the Howard government, what kind of commitments can we realistically expect from developing countries when it comes to Kyoto?

I was a little surprised that the Labor Party this week so willingly allowed the government to beat them over the head with Garrett’s Kyoto fumble, given the latter’s track record on the issue.

Under Labor, Australia would actually have a chair at the negotiating table, something we’ve been denied since the government followed the US lead in repudiating ratification in 2001.

Remember that Australia originally signed Kyoto. As John Watson points out in today’s Age, Australia only refused to ratify Kyoto after the US refused. Everything the government says on Kyoto should be viewed through the prism of this very pertinent fact.

It’s true that an effective post-2012 agreement will have to entail large emissions reduction commitments from the big developing world emitters if the ongoing negotiations are not to become to climate change what Doha is to free trade. There’s no way around that, and Rudd was right to say so.

But he did a poor job of pointing out the obstacles to such agreement that exist precisely because of the current government’s historical Kyoto aversion.

To recap: the developing nations have stated from the outset that they will accept binding emissions targets only if those primarily responsible for the historical burden of greenhouse gases act first. The position has long been recognised – by everyone but Australia and the US – as a reasonable one, as evidenced by its adoption as a formal principle of the UNFCCC back in 1992 (to which Australia is a signatory).

Article 3, Principle 1:

The parties should protect the climate… on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.

While Kyoto never made anything like the practical emissions cuts needed to stabilise climate, it was intended rather to be the first symbolic step forward by the world’s already affluent nations on the path towards that goal, the leadership that Article 3 implied. Thus it was only ever dead, unworkable, ineffective, and a failure to the extent that countries like Australia willed it so by abdicating that leadership.

Meanwhile, Australia’s emissions in most sectors have ballooned in the past decade, handily masked by a one-off reduction in land clearing, and we remain the second largest per capita emitter on the planet.