In recent weeks, there has been a welcome shift in focus in the Australian climate politics debate onto the global stage. It goes without saying that, unless the world moves decisively as a community of nations, we have not a snowball’s chance in hell of avoiding climate catastrophe.

But the mainstream Australian discussion of the Copenhagen Conference later this year has thus far focussed entirely on the need for a “successful agreement”, and not at all on how you might define such success.

It is incredibly important that we do not let ourselves believe that achieving any kind of diplomatic “success” at Copenhagen is enough. If Copenhagen does not deliver the kind of ambitious global agreement that will see our generation pass on a safe climate to our children, it will have failed. An agreement to do too little, or an agreement which countries can ignore, will be a failure.

This dichotomy was brought home firmly by statements in Australia yesterday by Connie Hedegaard, the Danish Climate Minister (see here, here, here and here), who is touring the world building momentum for the conference she is to host in just a few months’ time. Hedegaard is so keen for a diplomatic success that she has abandoned the goal of environmental success. Having been thoroughly briefed by the triumvirate of Penny Wong, the Climate Institute and the Business Council of Australia, Hedegaard backed the Rudd Government’s Continue Polluting Regardless Scheme as “crucial” to the success of Copenhagen, saying developed countries must sign up to at least the 25% cuts by 2020 that Australia has now put on the table as a maximum offer.

And that’s where the problem starts.

If the old parties close ranks with the old polluters to pass the scheme that is currently before the Parliament, Australia will go to Copenhagen having legislatively prevented itself from agreeing to a target stronger than the 25% minimum that the world requires from rich, high-polluting countries. The only impact this can possibly have on the negotiations is to lower the level of ambition from other developed countries, encouraging Canada, Japan and Russia to also refuse to take on science-based targets. This in turn makes it less likely that China, India and other very large developing nations will sign up to slow their increases in emissions. They have already made it clear that they expect rich countries to commit to targets in the order of 40% by 2020 and more before they agree to move.

And the chances of agreement all of a sudden look very grim indeed.

The Rudd Government’s conditional 25% offer is part of the problem, not the solution. If legislated, it would see Australia return to global negotiations demanding that the rest of the world goes very hard – other developed nations cutting emissions in the order of 40% and developing nations like China reducing emissions 20% below business as usual – while we once again get away with a weak target.

Of course the world needs to go hard! We need a global agreement that is, in fact, considerably stronger than the one that Australia’s conditions set out. But if such an agreement is reached, it will by necessity see Australia commit to far more than 25% cuts by 2020.

Chinese chief negotiator, Su Wei, told The Age just last weekend that Australia’s conditionality on the 25% was unacceptable. By demanding that China make commitments before we do, we breached the spirit of the UNFCCC’s 1992 agreement on common but differentiated targets. European nations have privately raised concerns with the Greens about Australia’s unacceptable attitude to burden-sharing amongst developed countries.

Now, Australia is not the be all and end all. If the US and China agree to start moving (as may now be about to happen), we will swiftly become irrelevant in the global game and be left behind as the world marches on. But, if the CPRS has any impact on the global negotiations, it will be a negative one, not a positive one. If Australia’s contribution to global climate negotiations is once again to lower the level of ambition, it will be a great tragedy.

In yesterday’s hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Climate Policy, Philip Sutton, as part of a roundtable of environment groups, made the point that, just like Kyoto, a weak agreement at Copenhagen will hold back progress, not encourage it. On the other hand, if negotiations fall apart this year, it can only spur on stronger efforts in the months afterwards to reach a truly effective agreement.

If we are to have any real hope of preventing runaway climate change, the global community must agree to return the atmosphere to 350 ppm CO2 as soon as possible. That will mean developed nations getting onto a trajectory towards zero net emissions as fast as possible. Once developed nations take on that challenge, developing nations will swiftly come on board as that is where the markets in the coming decades will be.

Let’s not set our sights too low for Copenhagen in order to achieve some kind of agreement. That approach is doomed to failure – if it does not lead to the collapse of negotiations, it will, in the end, lead to climate catastrophe. Let’s aim for the truly ambitious agreement that we need and keep working until we achieve it!