We have come to expect that soon after its election a new government will declare that the previous administration has left a hidden mountain of debt and that stringent measures will be required to deal with it.

After checking the books, the Labor Government has said that there is no hidden Howard debt. But Mr Rudd has discovered in Bali this week that John Howard has left him something much worse than a budget blow-out — a huge greenhouse debt.

Over 11 years, the Howard Government allowed Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions to grow so profligately that the task of cutting them back and meeting international expectations appears almost impossible.

Lacking a Charter of Greenhouse Accounting Honesty, the Howard Government could hide its negligence through a special clause inserted into the Kyoto Protocol at the last minute.

The “Australia clause”, as it was instantly dubbed, allowed the Howard Government to mask the extraordinary growth in fossil emissions by offsetting them against the sharp fall in emissions from land-clearing.

So, as late as this year Malcolm Turnbull could claim that in 2005 our emissions were only 4% or so above 1990 levels, even though our emissions from burning fossil fuels had grown by over 30%.

The true picture, concealed by tricky accounting, was much worse than the Government let on. And the get-out-of-jail free card provided by the Australia clause has already been played. Any cuts now must come from coal, oil and gas.

The implications of this appalling policy failure have come to a head in Bali today. The sticking point in the negotiations is whether to include in the Bali mandate a recognition that developed countries need to cut their collective emissions by 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020.

The pressure on Australia is enormous, but Kevin Rudd is trapped.

Australia’s total emissions will reach around 110% of 1990 levels in 2010, which means that a 25% cut below 1990 levels would require Australia to cut its emissions by a third over a 10 year period. No wonder the Prime Minister is blanching at the prospect.

If the Howard Government had taken its responsibilities seriously Australia’s emissions in 2010 could be at 95% of 1990 levels. At a minimum we could have had several years of building the new energy infrastructure that would permit a rapid reduction of our emissions. Savings from energy efficiency alone could get us to this point.

It’s much easier to get from 95% to 75% in 10 years than from 110% to 75%. Cutting domestic emissions by the latter amount is not feasible and Australia would be required to buy emission permits from other countries or invest heavily in developing countries through the Clean Development Mechanism.

There could have been a third and much more attractive option. The deal granted to Australia at Kyoto in 1997 was so generous that we could easily have come in under our target for the 2008-2012 period and been left with a swag of emission credits we could then have banked for the second commitment period.

Alternatively we could have sold them to other countries, such as Japan, that might struggle to meet their obligations.

It will take the Rudd Government many years to pay off John Howard’s massive greenhouse debt. In truth, the Australian public will pay for it. The economic modellers have been pointing out for a long time that delaying action drives up the cost of cutting our emissions.
Although it is now Rudd’s problem, it is Howard himself who must take all of the blame, for it was his personal decision, against all of the advice, to remain stubbornly opposed to accepting the reality of global warming.