Kevin Rudd will get a hero’s welcome at the upcoming climate change negotiations in Bali and Australian ratification of the Kyoto Protocol will be warmly received by national leaders everywhere but Washington and Ottawa.

It’s an important step but involves no heavy lifting: it costs nothing, we’re roughly on track to meet our target, and the bureaucracy has been Kyoto-ready for years. The real test for Rudd is the one Howard failed-cutting Australia’s emissions in line with what we expect of the world in light of the science. And the latest science suggests even deeper cuts are required than those to which Labor has already committed. Labor has a strong mandate to lead on climate change, and no excuses for not delivering.

Unlike Howard, Rudd took some of the big steps required (a 60% emissions cut target for 2050; a 20% renewables target for 2020; emissions trading by 2010
consistent with deep cuts long term; and no nuclear power). It’s what Labor hasn’t committed to that’s a worry: no pledge to accept another binding emissions target post-2012, let alone one involving absolute cuts. Rudd could look in the short to medium term for avenues to slow emissions growth rather than cut emissions. Similarly, he hasn’t said the emissions cap in the early years of emissions trading will translate into absolute emission cuts, nor to what extent he will accept the carve-out provisions sought by Australia’s worst polluting industries. The leeway Rudd has left himself (combined with a potentially difficult Senate) gives the ‘delay forces’ who captured John Howard a big foot in the door. And they are already deeply embedded in sections of business, the media, and the Canberra bureaucratic and lobbying establishment. They have plenty of good links into the Labor Party at the state and federal level too.

For all their huff and puff over it, Kyoto ratification is water off a ducks back for these delay forces. Their focus is what comes after 2012, and Labor is a largely blank canvas. The campaign debate about developing country involvement obscured this reality and skated over all the crucial detail. Expect Rudd to be lobbied furiously to avoid a second binding emission reduction target for Australia. He’ll be told an a pathway of delayed emission cuts in Australia can be part of an effective ‘family of emission reduction pathways’ internationally.

He’ll be urged to invest in adaptation and to focus on alternative approaches to emission reduction: energy intensity targets; forest cover improvements; voluntary co-operative processes like the AP7; subsidizing ‘clean coal’. The delay crowd is already clamoring to secure carve out provisions to protect themselves against emissions trading, and they may even embrace a token carbon tax as the best short-medium term way to prolong business as usual. A veritable Jamboree of greenhouse denial and delay hosted by CEDA during the election campaign pushed this whole agenda in what was a clear shot over Labor’s bow.

Kevin Rudd deserves the Kyoto kudos, but as his Bali honeymoon dies down, we’ll see just how serious Labor is about climate change. Keep an eye on
some of Rudd’s early decisions. If he dumps Peter Garrett from the Environment portfolio, keeps David Borthwick in charge of the Environment Department; and retains ABARE as a core source of greenhouse policy advice, look out.

If he dances around questions about emissions trading carve-out provisions for our worst polluting industries, that’s a worry. If he keeps his options open on whether Australia plans to accept a post-2012 binding emission reduction target (even if the exact figure and detail on developing country involvement is subject to further negotiation), test the alarm bells because they may be needed once again. I’m cautiously optimistic, but only time will tell.